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State maps substantial strategic and critical mineral resources

Posted: February 18, 2013 - 8:07pm  |  Updated: February 19, 2013 - 12:10am

State geologists are mapping Alaska’s mineral potential from the land and air. They are paying specific attention to the strategic and critical minerals peppered throughout state land.

“Alaska has a tremendous number of these mineral types,” said Bob Swenson, state geologist and director of the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys for the U.S. Department of Natural Resources.

The state was home to 43 active exploration projects in 2012, Swenson said. However, 2013 is expected to see a reduction in exploration, he said.

Alaska is flush with both strategic and critical minerals — and there is a difference between the designations. Metals that are vital to military technology are considered strategic, while important metals that are mostly imported from other countries are considered critical. These metals include platinum group antimony, barite, chromite, cobalt, fluorite, gallium, graphite, indium, platinum group elements, rare earth elements, rhenium, tantalum, titanium, tungsten, yttrium and niobium. Easily, of a third of the minerals the U.S. imports, it must import 100 percent of its supply.

This list is “merely a subset of Alaska mineral potential,” Swenson said. “You see a significant amount of potential throughout the state. For all but just a very few of these commodities there is opportunity for production in Alaska.”

Swenson said the list of strategic and critical minerals is expected to change over time.

Swenson said Southeast Alaska enjoys rich geology, being located on the edge of the Pacific crustal plate. Deposits such as the Bokan Mountain and Dotson Ridge uranium and rare earth element deposit on Prince of Wales Island, and the precious and base metals mines located near Juneau, are found in rock formations called Taku, Wrangellia, Alexander, Yakutat and others.

Niblack mine, located near Moira Sound on Prince of Wales Island, is expected to contain 9.1 million tons of copper, gold, silver and zinc combined. Niblack’s neighbor, Bokan Mountain, could yield nearly 70 million pounds of total rare earth oxides. Bokan is known to be rich in the sought-after heavy rare earth elements.

Swenson said his state agency does not do as much work in the region due to the large percentage of Southeast land that is federally owned.

Since 1993, surveys have identified 40 million acres of state land with high potential for mineral deposits as part of its Alaska Geophysical Mineral Inventory Program.

“To assess and document the strategic and critical minerals in Alaska,” Swenson said. Critical mineral programs in Alaska drew $2.5 million in 2013 and the division requested $2.7 million for 2014.

State geophysicists are also reanalyzing past data for signs of these currently vital minerals. They plan to continue with mapping and update the database “to get that information in the hands of those who need it,” Swenson said.

Even with substantial resources already hinted at, the state has only mapped about an eighth of the 40 million acres deemed as having a high potential of deposits, Swenson said.

• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at russell.stigall@juneauempire.com.

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