When thinking of mining in Southeast Missouri, most locals recall the lead mines that have supported the region for more than a century that gave it the name the “Lead Belt.”
While the area still produces the majority of the nation’s lead, mining efforts have shifted west out of St. Francois and Madison Counties, focused now near Viburnum and south through Reynolds County. While it may seem as though the time of mining in the Parkland is a thing of the past, there’s a small chance it could also be a thing of the future.
Much study has been done on the geology of southeast Missouri over time, and for different purposes. What seems to most interest researchers and investors is that the region shares characteristics with other mineral-rich areas around the world, such as South Australia where a large deposit of ore called the Olympic Dam is located. The Olympic Dam is a deposit containing iron-oxide, copper and gold (IOCG). Usually, these types of deposits also contain other materials that don’t justify a mining operation on their own, but can be lucrative byproducts of iron or copper mining.
One type of byproduct that can be produced in such an operation is a group of elements called rare earth elements which have a wide array of applications.
Legend Minerals, a startup mine company with a field office in Fredericktown, is currently performing explorations in the region with the hopes of discovering a large deposit of the same type as the Olympic Dam deposit in South Australia that has so much in common with the geology here in Southeast Missouri.
Exploration Manager Bill Jud said the area holds promise because of how natural forces have or have not affected the area over time.
“The production at the Olympic Dam Mine in South Australia is from the upper part (of the deposit) where you have a lot of replacement activity in the rocks,” Jud said. “Not from the lower part. The Pea Ridge Mine and that area of Missouri would be from the lower part, which also has a lot of potential, but the entire upper section has eroded off.”
Jud said Madison County and surrounding areas in particular have potential to hold some strong deposits that haven’t been worn away over time.
“Now as you go from the Pea Ridge Mine (in Sullivan) south, down to Southeast Missouri, the erosion has removed less and less and less material, and when you get down to this area, the super-structure is still there and the sub-structure is still there. So if there’s anything here at all, it’s still here. It wasn’t taken away by erosion half a billion years ago.”
Jud said his hope for the region is to discover an IOCG-type deposit similar to the Olympic Dam deposit in South Australia. If such a deposit is indeed in the area, Jud said the mine would most likely produce iron or copper, but could produce other valuable minerals as byproducts, like rare earth elements, if it is present — in the same manner that China, the rare earth leaders of the world do.
“In China’s case, they’re not really mining rare earths,” Jud said. “They’re mining iron and the rare earths just come along as a rider. And we’ll likely do the same thing here. I don’t think we’ll have any rare earth mines in Missouri — we’ll be mining something else and the rare earths will just come with it. Like gold — there won’t be any gold mines in Missouri, but there might be enough to serve as a byproduct.”
Anne McCafferty, a geophysicist with the United States Geological Survey, said rare earth elements are not called "rare" because of how often they occur, but in what magnitude.
“What we like to say around here is that rare earth elements are not rare,” McCafferty said. “But what is rare is that they occur in abundance — enough for an economic mineral deposit.”
“They’re used in all kinds of high-tech industries,” McCafferty continued. “Wind turbines use neodymium, in particular, to make magnets. The rare earths have these particular characteristics that make them robust in terms of using them in certain applications for military and high-tech industries.”
The Mountain Pass Mine in California, once the largest producer of rare earths in the United States, filed for bankruptcy in 2015 as a result of foreign competition and domestic regulation.
“In the United States, Mountain Pass on the border of California and Nevada was our largest rare earth element deposit,” McCafferty said. “And that is found in a carbonatite deposit. Mountain Pass had been up and running for many years and producing rare earth elements from that deposit. And then, over time, the Chinese took over — and they mined rare earth elements out of clay deposits, so it’s a lot less expensive. So, basically, Mountain Pass is out of business because of that competition.”
“So you find rare earth elements in a lot of different kinds of geology,” McCafferty said. “You find them in these clay deposits, you find them in these carbonatites, which are igneous rocks. You find them in iron deposits, and that’s what you have there in Southeast Missouri.”
Jud said the primary reason that the United States is not a successful producer of rare earth elements is not one of supply or location, but of legislation. One of the nails in the coffin of the California Mountain Pass Mine was a pipeline break that resulted in the dumping of liquid containing thorium and uranium in the Mojave Desert.
“They throw up their arms and scream, ‘Radioactivity! The world’s going to end!’” Jud said. “And they take this down to ridiculous levels. Below the levels of radiation on Elephant Rocks, by quite a bit.”
The restrictions come from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Jud said they lump highly radioactive materials with less dangerous ones like thorium.
“The building blocks in the (Madison County) Courthouse would probably qualify as being a radioactive hazard, but of course, they’re not,” Jud said. “And a lot of the land area around Pilot Knob and Ironton — pretty highly radioactive and a lot of radon gas and things like this.”
Because of the regulations on extracting and storing materials like thorium, many mines dump material containing rare earths with the rest of their waste products, despite the high value of such material.
Jud said that James Kennedy, former owner of the Pea Ridge Mine in Sullivan, had the idea of creating a corporation with the express purpose of extracting and storing radioactive materials like thorium.
“So it’s Jim Kennedy’s suggestion to set up a thorium corporation,” Jud said. “The mines can mine the stuff, they can refine it. And in the process of separating rare earths from each other you end up with thorium and uranium. Well, just give the thorium and uranium to the thorium corporation, and they can very competently take care of the problem. They will know what to do with it, and they can be safe about it and so forth.”
Concentrations of rare earth elements have been discovered in geological structures called breccia pipes as near as Sullivan in the Pea Ridge Mine. The mine produced iron for years, but was also known to have potential for rare earth byproducts.
Kennedy owned the Pea Ridge Mine from 2006 to 2011, during which time he became aware of the mine’s potential rare earth deposits, as well as the legislative and economic hurdles that stand in the way of the United States having a rare earth industry to compete with China’s.
Kennedy has spoken to Defense officials at the Pentagon and the White House. He has spoken at numerous thorium and nuclear energy conventions and has assisted in writing books on the topic. Kennedy is now the president of ThREE Consulting, a St. Louis company dedicated to providing a way for the United States to create its own rare earth value chain.
“This is not a new problem,” Kennedy said. “This is a problem that goes back to at least the 90s.”
Kennedy said the problem began in 1980 when new mining regulations were introduced in the U.S. that applied uranium regulations to all mining, deeming any radioactive material "source material," or material capable of being used as a nuclear fuel.
This caused the mining costs of operations who produced primarily iron or titanium and also rare earths as a byproduct to skyrocket. Meanwhile, Chinese operations took the opportunity to invest heavily in their rare earth production operations and soon had total control of the market.
This, Kennedy said, is why many companies are transplanting their operations to China. Rare earths are used for a variety of products, and some have military value as well as commercial.
Kennedy said that a government report from February of 2016 stated that the United States’ inventory of "smart weapons," which rely heavily on rare earths, was practically at zero.
“So if China had blockaded us in February of 2016, the war would have been over by now,” Kennedy said. “Because we didn’t have the resources or the weaponry.”
For this reason, Kennedy says the U.S. government has a constitutional mandate to sort out the problem of American rare earth independence.
To that end, Kennedy is working on legislation that would allow the formation of what he describes as an old-fashioned farming cooperative, in which multiple entities front the cost for the extraction and production of rare earths in the U.S., and then a new, separate corporation would be solely responsible for the handling and storage of American thorium and creating a value chain, which entails creating a viable long-term cycle of extraction, refining and production of value-added products that rely on the materials.
In a technical presentation he gave at the Society of Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration (SME) Conference in Denver, Kennedy explained that while the business of mining rare earths is a $3 billion worldwide industry, it supports a $7 trillion product industry.
Kennedy said he’s been working on this problem for eight years now, but is having difficulty finding people in the government willing to see the problem or to do anything about it. He said that the Trump administration seems very interested in correcting the problem, but only time will tell. As of now, Kennedy is part of a small group working to get legislation in the hands of government officials.
“There are two people working on this right now,” Kennedy said. “Myself and my partner.”
Jud said the aim for those interested in the future of America’s rare earth industry is to make others aware of the issue and to provide information.
“So the goal right now is to get some interest going and some legislative action going to get rid of this restriction on low-level radioactive materials,” Jud said. “Everybody’s afraid you’re going to take it and make a bomb out of it. Well, you cannot make a bomb out of thorium. You can’t. Thorium is a fertile material, but it’s not fissionable. It will not make a bomb.”
Jud added that while the idea of an iron or copper mine in the Parkland that one day also produces rare earths may be a long shot, it’s nothing out of the realm of possibility.
“This is an exploration project, and most exploration projects fail,” he said. “It’s just the nature of exploration. Some of them succeed, and the ones that succeed, combine with agriculture to support all of civilization. You need mines to build things and you need agriculture to feed the miners.”
“It’s not a ‘get rich quick scheme’ by any means,” he added. “If everything goes well, and we actually make a discovery, we’re looking at 15, 25 years in the future. But once it gets started, it’ll be like the lead mines. They’ll go and they’ll go and they’ll go. The lead mines have been productive economic things for 125 years, and they’re still producing.”
Jud said if there is indeed a sizable discovery of a deposit that can also produce a good amount of rare earths, the mine itself would only be part of the benefit to the area.
“The final step that we have — if, of course, we actually discover something — is to bring in the high-tech industries that use that kind of stuff,” Jud said. “And instead of just having the usual mix of industry that we have (in the area), we can bring in the ones that do the electronics and the LED light bulbs and the alloys for jet engines and so on.”
Despite the low chance of success, Jud said the end result would be worth the effort to explore the area for a rich deposit.
“It’s a low probability item,” Jud said. “We expect to fail, based on industry standards. Most prospects fail. They just do. But occasionally you get a success, and when you get a success, then you have something that’s really valuable and supports the local community.”