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Rare earth mining in Alaska

Posted: March 23, 2012 - 12:45pm  |  Updated: March 23, 2012 - 1:22pm

Considerable attention has been paid recently to rare earth mining potential in Southeast Alaska (Peggy Wilson, Juneau Empire, Feb. 21, 2012). Unfortunately, in the quest for a new boom, much of this attention has ignored realities about supply and demand as well as the environmental and social impacts associated with this type of mining. Before the state allocates more than the $500,000 already spent in subsidizing a speculative industry, we should step back and take a careful look.

For one, rare earth element (REE) prices have been declining recently as companies find cheaper substitutes and embrace recycling programs. General Motors, Toyota, Volkswagen, General Electric, and many other U.S. and foreign manufactures have announced ambitious programs to substitute technologies and products away from dependence on REEs. While China may currently control most of the supply of REEs, they do not control the demand.

The price declines have been very significant. Of the 10 REEs for which prices are tracked on the website metal-pages.com, all 10 have experienced over 60 percent price declines in the last six months.

And while the economic inevitability of REE mining in Southeast is greatly overstated, the environmental and social costs have been greatly understated.

Rare Earth mining has significant potential to damage our existing billion-dollar a year fishing industry in Southeast Alaska. According to ADF&G, 734,000 chums were caught in the commercial salmon fishery in Kendrick Bay — the body of water downslope from the proposed Bokan Mountain REE mine on Prince of Wales Island. Just these chums (though all five species of salmon are caught in Kendrick Bay) represent almost $4.4 million in annual income to area fishermen. Overall, commercial fishing employees more than 56,000 people in Alaska, 16 times more than the mining industry!

Hard rock mines have a very bad track record when it comes to protecting water quality in streams and estuaries. The proposed Bokan mine is adjacent to a former uranium mine, raising the stakes much more than we have previously dealt with in Southeast Alaska. Despite being closed for decades, soils and streams near the former mine still show radioactivity between 2 and 100 times greater than background levels.

In Southeast Alaska — with our sustainable economies of tourism, fisheries, and subsistence so deeply intertwined with a clean environment — we must move with caution and incorporate voices and information that do not have a vested interest in speculative mine operations.

Just this week, an old REE mine and mill was re-opened in Mountain Pass, California, with an estimated annual production of over 2,800 tons. Let’s study the impacts of this mine, and fully consider the consequences to our subsistence cultures and environment before jumping feet first into REE mining on Prince of Wales Island. Countless generations have depended on a clean environment in this region, and one generation’s experiment could put that at risk for a very long time.

• Archibald is the mining and clean water coordinator for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. He has experience in environmental chemistry and mining. He can be contacted at guy@seacc.org

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