According to a letter from his office to the White House, Governor Mike Dunleavy wants the Trump administration to fast-track a proposed rare earth mine in Southeast Alaska. But environmentalists warn the mine won’t get a thorough enough review.
Bokan Mountain is on the southern end of Prince of Wales Island. There’s no road access, and the nearest town is about 30 miles away.
But, according to the Nova Scotia-based mining company Ucore, rare earth elements are buried deep below the mountain.
“So it includes the full suite of lanthanides, all the rare earth elements,” said Randy MacGillivray, a vice president for Ucore.
He says the rock under Bokan Mountain is chock-full of raw materials used to make all kinds of high-tech products: flat panel TVs, electric vehicles, smartphones, missile guidance systems, and more.
“Homeland Security, Department of Defense, Defense Logistics Agency, those are areas of the government that are extremely interested in rare earth elements,” MacGillivray said.
Most of the world’s rare earth elements come from China — 70 percent of last year’s worldwide production, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. And back in May, the Chinese government warned that it might cut off the U.S.’s supply as part of the ongoing trade war between the two countries.
So in early August, Governor Mike Dunleavy asked the Trump administration to designate a Southeast Alaska mine as a “high priority infrastructure project.” That’s a label that would speed it through the permitting process and, in theory, get the mine producing more quickly.
But not everyone’s on board with accelerating the mine’s timeline. Guy Archibald is with the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.
“The mine itself is not near ready for development,” he said. “It’s not a shovel-ready project at all.”
Archibald says Ucore hasn’t studied the site enough. The company produced a preliminary economic assessment back in 2013, but he says a lot has changed in the marketplace since then. He sees that as evidence that the company isn’t prepared to deal with the complex nature of the project.
Ucore’s MacGillivray doesn’t dispute that the economics around the project have changed in the six years since the initial study, but he says Ucore has spent that time developing a market for the mine’s products and working on new processing techniques.
The company would take the waste from the mill, mix it with concrete, and stick it back where it came from: underground, in the mine.
Archibald is worried that could have serious environmental consequences.
“They’ll run into a lot of groundwater, they’ll have groundwater contamination issues, have to have active water treatments, they’ll have to protect terminal salmon fishery and Kendrick Bay,” Archibald said.
But Ucore’s MacGillivray says the project will have to undergo the same environmental review as any other mine project. He says the high priority infrastructure project designation wouldn’t waive environmental permit requirements — it would just stick the Bokan project at the front of the line, so to speak.
“So we would still employ all the environmental reviews and protections that are required,” MacGillivray said.
Reached for comment, the governor’s office wouldn’t go beyond the language in its letter to the White House.
According to the executive order that governs the high priority infrastructure project program, the White House has 30 days to respond to the governor’s nomination of the mine. That month expired back in early September, but MacGillivray says Ucore hasn’t heard back from the White House.
The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment.
This story was produced as part of a collaboration between KRBD and Alaska’s Energy Desk.