The Canadian company working to develop a rare earth mineral refining complex in southern Southeast Alaska announced Tuesday that it’s pushing back its target opening date to late 2024. That hinges on finding a building in Ketchikan to house the plant.
Ucore was aiming to have a facility dedicated to processing rare earth minerals built in Ketchikan by the end of next year. That was what it called its “Alaska2023” plan.
“Continue business and engineering development efforts towards the construction of the Alaska SMC (strategic metals complex) by 2023,” is the fifth point in the nine-part Alaska2023 plan listed on the company’s website.
But Ucore’s chief operating officer, Mike Schrider, shared information at the annual meeting of the economic development group Southeast Conference that pointed toward a different timeline — one that pushes the opening of the facility to the tail end of 2024.
Schrider said at the conference that it was downstream partners pushing Ucore “very hard” toward that timeline.
In a phone call the following morning, Schrider said the 2023 plan was more of a symbolic goal.
“Our purpose of establishing the 2023 plan was to essentially plant a stake in the ground, saying this is a project that we’re committed to and are going to make happen,” he said. “It’s just that the timeline now is just stretching out a little bit a little bit, for outside reasons.”
And with little visible progress towards building a facility in Ketchikan from scratch, Schrider said Ucore is now aiming to house its plant in an existing building in the Ketchikan area. He didn’t say where the facility might be or whether the company has any particular building in mind.
“Our plan right now is that we have to — because of the 2024 target date now with our customers — we need to move into an existing facility, which is called a brownfield facility,” he said. “And that’s the only way that we can achieve our schedule.“
Ucore chose Ketchikan as the plant’s home because of its proximity to Seattle and Prince Rupert, and because there’s an existing workforce. It’s also close to Prince of Wales Island, where the Bokan-Dotson prospect is located. Ucore hopes to build a mine on the site upstream of Kendrick Bay, and send ore for processing in Ketchikan.
Schrider said that there will be workforce development training for the processing facility through a partnership with the University of Alaska Southeast in Ketchikan. That’s something that’s been almost two years in the works, Schrider said.
He also said the company has secured three preliminary agreements that would supply feedstock to the processing plant. He told KRBD that Ucore couldn’t announce the names of two of the entities, but one was with Vital Metals, another Canadian company that focuses on rare earth mineral production. The company started mining rare earth ore from the Nelchalcho prospect, a site in Canada’s Northwest Territories, last year.
The proposed processing plant in Ketchikan would use a proprietary extraction technology Ucore is calling “RapidSX.”
Ucore CEO Pat Ryan also spoke via Zoom at Southeast Conference on Tuesday. He touted the company’s solvent extraction technique as faster and cheaper than existing mineral separation techniques, like those used in China.
“We’re saying let’s westernize it,” Ryan said. “Let’s do it that much better. When you have the right tech you can approach the problem very carefully with better throughput, better capital expenditures.”
And as for the mine itself, Schrider said work is ongoing.
“This summer, we were in Ketchikan and Prince of Wales for some mineral resource upgrade work at the resource site,” he noted.
That’s preliminary mining work aimed at figuring out how many tons of rare earth minerals actually exist at the remote site on southern Prince of Wales Island.
Raegan Miller is a Report for America corps member for KRBD. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one. Please consider making a tax-deductible contribution at KRBD.org/donate.