The Pacific Coastal Temperate Rainforest, stretching from Northern California into Alaska, is known best for things that grow above the ground — like the world’s tallest trees, and in its waters, like the legendary salmon runs. But we know far less about treasures lurking underground, like the vein of rare earth elements tucked away deep within Alaska’s Tongass National Forest – America’s largest national forest.
This cache of highly valued minerals is buried under Bokan Mountain, a small peak at the remote southern tip of Prince of Wales Island, the southernmost island in the Southeast Alaskan archipelago and the fourth largest island in the United States.
Ucore Rare Metals Inc., a Nova Scotia-based company, owns the rights to build a mine at the site. In a recent letter to Uncore shareholders, the company’s president and CEO Jim McKenzie, says it has located 5.3 million tons of “the most valuable, sought after, strategically important, and hard-to-obtain” varieties of rare earths in Bokan. That makes it one of the largest lodes of rare earth elements ever found in the United States, according to the US Geological Survey.
Rare earth elements — a group of 17 elements used in many high-tech devices — are not actually rare but hard to find in large concentrations. They are just as abundant as familiar metals like copper, nickel, and zinc, and are essential in the manufacture of a whole host of devices we rely on, including smartphones, precision-guided munitions, flat-screen televisions, MRI scanners, computer hard drives, batteries, lasers, magnets, energy efficient lightbulbs and wind turbines.
The USGS first discovered rare earth elements on Bokan Mountain in 1963. Ucore staked its claim for these in 2009. In 2014, the company obtained $145 million in low-interest, long-term financing from the Alaska legislature to construct a metals separation plant in Ketchikan. But moving rare earth elements from Bokan Mountain and into consumer devices and weapons of war has not been easy. The so-called Bokan-Dotson Ridge Rare Earth Project has yet to produce its first ounce of metal. It is now stalled while several thorny environmental and legal issues get resolved.
Given their wide use in commercial and defense technologies, accessing rare earths is strategically important to the US and it has long been scoping out possible domestic sources of these elements. This quest has become increasingly important given the US’ conflicted trade relationship with China, which currently supplies about 70 percent of the world’s rare earth minerals. Beijing has threatened to cut off America’s access to them as a counter to President Trump’s trade war. Trump raised tariffs on many imports from China but not rare earths. “Waging a trade war against China, the United States risks losing the supply of materials that are vital to sustaining its technological strength,” the official Chinese Xinhua news agency said last May.
In response, Trump issued five executive orders in July requiring Mark Esper, the US secretary of defense, to develop domestic production capabilities for rare earth metals. Rare earths, Trump said, are “essential to the national defense.” A month later, Trump ordered Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to exempt Alaska’s 16.7-million-acre Tongass National Forest from Clinton-era “roadless rule” restrictions blocking the construction of access roads in roadless areas.
In his letter to shareholders, McKenzie, the Ucore CEO, believes the Bokan Mountain mine project, which is located in a 200,000-acre roadless area, would benefit from both of Trump’s directives. Lifting the roadless rule, he added, “would increase the likelihood of rapid development at Bokan.”
The Bokan Mountain mine would be built on top of a defunct uranium mine, which the US Environmental Protection Agency has designated as a Superfund site. Open-pit and underground uranium mining from 1957 to 1971 scattered radioactive rocks around the area. The mine yielded 94,500 tons of uranium ore and left behind 184,000 tons of tailings. The site is contaminated with radioactive Uranium, thorium, radium, lead and polonium.
Radioactivity at the site was measured more than 7 times the background level, according to a 2004 Forest Service study, posing a potential health hazard to the workforce employed at the Ucore mine site. (The USGS says rare earth elements are often found alongside radioactive deposits of uranium and thorium.)
The EPA claims that radioactive contamination is leaching into Kendrick Creek, a salmon-bearing stream running through the mine site, and adjacent Kendrick Bay, an arm of the Pacific Ocean. None of the contamination has been cleaned up yet — a fact that worries environmentalists like Guy Archibald, staff scientist for the environmental nonprofit Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. Heavy metals and radioactive isotopes from past mining activities, he says, “are quickly moving up the food chain.”
The 2004 Forest Service study found lead, arsenic and six radioactive isotopes at 3 to 4 times background levels in the tidal flats of Kendrick Bay. Two isotopes were found in surface waters. Contamination is also present in freshwater and marine sediments.
Kendrick Bay is habitat to three top-of-the-food-chain species listed under the Endangered Species Act —humpback and fin whales and Steller sea lions. Humpbacks, who have been seen not far from the contaminated shore, migrate to Southeast Alaska from Hawaii and Japan every summer. Three other species listed as “sensitive” by the Forest Service, live in the area: the trumpeter swan, Peale’s peregrine falcon, and the Queen Charlotte goshawk. The bay is also home to commercial and recreational fisheries and is the site of a commercial salmon aquaculture farm.
The mining site is located about 3 miles from a federally designated wilderness area and within the 200,000 acre Eudora roadless area in the Tongass National Forest. While access to the site is unrestricted, it is remote and accessible only by float plane or boat, or overland by hiking through many miles of rugged terrain. There are no roads or hiking trails connecting to other roads or communities on the island.
In 2011, the US Forest Service granted Ucore a special permit to access the Bokan mine site by helicopter. But proponents of the mine say without road access, mining in the area isn’t feasible.
In a September 5 op-ed in the Anchorage Daily News, former Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski wrote that the roadless rule makes “mining exploration and development difficult as a practical matter.” Murkowski, a Republican, was governor of Alaska from 2002-2006, wrote that “while ‘reasonable’ access is not prohibited for mining in Roadless Areas, mining companies often need road access to get heavy equipment from tidewater to a project site or to otherwise proceed with economically exploring and developing a mine.”
Mike Dunleavy, Alaska’s current Republican governor, another mine backer, is now pushing Trump to support the Bokan Mountain mining project. On August 9, he nominated it as a High Priority Infrastructure Project, a Trump administration initiative launched in 2017 to speed up the permitting approval process for projects of key strategic importance to the United States.
“The State of Alaska understands the critical nature of a secure supply chain for rare earth minerals in the United States,” Dunleavy wrote in a letter to the White House. “We are seeking your support to have this Alaskan rare earth deposit deemed a High Priority Infrastructure Project and recognize that this designation will allow for a more efficient permitting process to ensure the resource is available for development in a reasonable time-frame.” The White House has yet to publicly announce its response to Dunleavy’s request.
Ucore says designating the Bokan Mountain mine as High Priority Infrastructure Project could “shave off two years” from the mine permitting process.
But environmentalists like Archibald say that classifying Bokan Mountain as an important strategic national asset could short-circuit necessary environmental reviews. Developing the mine in the roadless area could become “a rallying cry for the continued access and exploitation of ever-more sensitive and rare habitat,” he says.
Archibald noted that that Kendrick Creek and Bay are still recovering from “vast amounts of toxic, acidic waste” caused by the historical uranium mining at Bokan. “Reopening this mine threatens both salmon populations and human health,” he says. “Development could further contaminate the area’s ground and surface water.”
Ucore has yet to turn over its first shovelful of dirt at the mine site but it has been sending out a steady flow of press releases, such as one touting its advanced separation process. However, it appears that its access to that advanced technology is not guaranteed. The company has been embroiled in a nasty legal battle with a former business partner, IBC Advanced Technologies Inc (IBC), which developed the very separation process — a molecular recognition technology that separates rare earth elements in mined ore — that Uncore has been touting. In February 2019, Ucore announced it had purchased the Salt Lake City-based company, but IBC filed a lawsuit challenging the takeover. On Sept 19, a federal judge in Utah dismissed the case.