Bitterroot National Forest officials are still waiting for details on a proposed rare earth mining project in the southern end of the Bitterroot Valley.
“The Bitterroot National Forest has not received a draft Plan of Operations for any exploration drilling or a proposal to develop a mine in the Sheep Creek Area,” West Fork District Ranger Dan Pliley said in an email statement Wednesday. “If the Forest Service receives a plan, we will review the plan, and if warranted, will take the proposal through the National Environmental Policy Act process. The NEPA process would include the opportunity for public notification and comment and ensure compliance with applicable environmental laws and regulations before moving forward with the project.”
Last week, Nevada-based U.S. Critical Materials declared its interest in prospecting the Sheep Creek drainage for rare earth minerals needed for electronics and other industrial uses. The company has filed claims in the historic Sheep Creek Columbite Deposit mine site, in the headwaters of the West Fork of the Bitterroot River. That site, about 38 miles south of Darby and 13 miles from the Painted Rocks Reservoir, was first developed in 1953.
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U.S. Critical Materials’ notice of intent to the Bitterroot National Forest states it has explored its claims with hand tools for sampling and geologic mapping. In 2022, it conducted soil sampling, stream sediment sampling, rock chip sampling and mapping of historic mine adits, according to Forest officials.
The Forest Service has not received a proposal to conduct mineral exploration in 2023, Pliley said.
Miners with valid claims have the right to use the surface above deposits for mining purposes, and processing their plans is non-discretionary for the Forest Service, according to Bitterroot Forest Spokesman Tod McKay. However, they are required by federal law to submit plans and post reclamation bonds for their activity. They must also get an exploration license from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
U.S. Critical Materials described its potential mine as “one of the highest-grade light rare earth projects in the U.S.,” containing “at least 12 of the critical risk elements as defined by the U.S. Geological Survey.” Key elements at the site are neodymium and praseodymium, according to the company. Both elements have a wide variety of uses, sometimes together, including in electric vehicles and in making exceptionally strong, tiny magnets inside electronics.
The company holds mining rights on 223 claims around Sheep Creek. The claims total more than 4,500 acres, or about 7 square miles, of U.S. Forest Service land. The deposit also contains lanthanum, cerium, europium, gallium, niobium, yttrium, scandium, dysprosium, strontium and gadolinium, according to the company. The elements are often found in conjunction with thorium, a radioactive element.
Rare earth mining typically involves excavation of ore-bearing earth followed by chemical leaching in on-site ponds, or by pumping leaching chemicals through pipes directly into the ore beds.