A Nevada-based mineral firm has introduced plans to develop a mine close to the headwaters of the West Fork of the Bitterroot River in western Montana. If authorised, the challenge might extract billions of {dollars} price of uncommon earth minerals, mining officers not too long ago advised the Missoulian. The proposed mine—which might function on public lands managed by america Forest Service (USFS)—has drawn scrutiny from a number of conservation teams, together with Trout Limitless (TU) and Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA).

What are Uncommon Earth Parts?

Uncommon earth parts or REEs are utilized in a number of merchandise that embody smartphones, LED lighting, wind generators, photo voltaic panels, and electrical automobiles. The minerals are additionally utilized by the protection trade within the manufacture of missile steerage programs. 

The Biden Administration has introduced its intention to prioritize uncommon earth mining, citing a vital must lower American dependence on China for the manufacturing of REEs. In response to U.S. Important Supplies Corp., the corporate that holds the mining claims, western Montana accommodates the best high quality uncommon earth deposits in america. The mining claims are centered round a waterway known as Sheep Creek, which feeds instantly into the West Fork of the Bitterroot River. 

“We have now confirmed that Sheep Creek is the highest-grade rare-earth deposit in america, with a multibillion-dollar useful resource worth,” U.S. Important Supplies Corp. President Jim Hedrick stated in a press launch.

Henrick and his firm have reportedly secured 223 mining claims in a swath of the Bitterroot Nationwide Forest that encompasses some 4,500 acres or seven sq. miles. The corporate is presently conducting exploratory actions underneath permits issued by the USFS in 2022. 

Environmental Impacts and Potential Opposition

Fishing is a significant draw on the West Fork of the Bitterroot. A comparatively small river by Montana requirements, the thriving tailwater fishery is thought for its outsized brown, rainbow, cutthroat, and brook trout.

“The river is a focus for fishermen out and in of the Bitterroot Valley,” the Forest Service states on its web site.  “Starting with the primary insect hatch within the spring the snow-melt swollen river is swarmed upon by fisherman with boat and sort out. Because the waters subside and spring blends into summer time the river offers a extra soothing fishing expertise and time for scenic raft journeys.”

The West Fork feeds into the principle stem of the Bitterroot River, which flows north into the Clark Fork and the Large Blackfoot—all well-known trout fishing locations in their very own proper. 

A fly fisherman alongside the West Fork Bitterroot River. Corey Fisher.

Uncommon earth minerals are extracted by way of considered one of two strategies: Drilling or open-pit mining. In response to the Harvard Worldwide Overview (HIR), each strategies carry a excessive threat of environmental and human well being issues. “Mining produces poisonous waste within the type of mud, fuel, wastewater, and radioactive residue,” the HIR reported in August 2021. “For each ton of uncommon earth, 2,000 tons of poisonous waste are produced.”

Earlier than any mining can happen, the Sheep Creek challenge should be signed off on by Dan Pliley, the pinnacle ranger within the West Fork District of the Bitterroot Nationwide Forest. “They should put collectively what’s known as a plan of operations and submit it to the Forest Service. Then it is going to undergo a public course of with an related environmental assessment and alternative for public remark,” Corey Fisher, Public Lands Coverage Director for Montana Trout Limitless (TU) advised Area & Stream. “That’s the place TU and different events would have the chance to interact.” 

Fisher stated that Montana TU is monitoring the mine intently, however the group has stopped in need of declaring any formal opposition till extra detailed plans are unveiled. Both means, he stated, the Forest Service has its fingers tied on mining points when push involves shove. 

“In contrast to different extractive makes use of, mining is one which trumps all the opposite a number of makes use of on public lands,” he stated. “We see this time and time once more. The [USFS] could make modifications to the permits and require sure mitigation measures, however it’s fairly tough to cease a mine. It actually highlights the necessity for mining reform.”

The Montana Chapter of BHA has additionally expressed issues in regards to the proposed mine. “The West Fork is an space that’s dwelling to elk, mule deer, and bighorn sheep,” Montana BHA acknowledged in a latest Instagram publish. “Montana’s relationship with mining is a sophisticated one. The state has benefited from many underground fortunes and has been caught cleansing up the endlessly messes and masking the prices of many failures. Accountable mining comes with high-paying jobs, however all mining comes with very actual long-term dangers.”

Talking with the Missoulian final Wednesday, a spokesperson for U.S. Important Supplies Corp. stated he hopes to see full-fledged mining operations introduced on-line within the subsequent 4 to 5 years. If that occurs, TU’s Fisher stated, the ensuing air pollution might have direct unfavourable impacts on trout populations inside the watershed.

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“One potential influence may very well be sedimentation working off from the mine web site into streams,” he stated. “If there’s pyrite content material on the ore physique, then we might see acid mine drainage that must be handled. Everytime you get acid mine waste, you get heavy metals related to it—like cadmium and lead. This diminishes populations of aquatic bugs that trout eat. These chemical substances additionally bioaccumulate in fish, and also you get shorter life expectations. That’s once you begin to see consumption advisories, as fish with excessive ranges of those metals turn out to be unsafe for anglers to eat.”

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