Bokan Mountain in the Tongass National Forest — home to glaciers, salmon and a large section of Alaskan wilderness — is the site of a fraught mining project. While progress on UCore’s proposed rare earth element mine at Bokan-Dotson Ridge on Prince of Wales Island in southeastern Alaska had stalled in recent years, the project has received attention once again under the Trump Administration and its America First policy.
The island’s highly sought-after rare earth elements (REE) are a collection of 17 metallic elements: a set known as the lanthanides, as well as yttrium and scandium. Though their name suggests otherwise, rare earth elements are relatively abundant in the earth’s crust. However, these elements usually occur as constituents in other minerals (unlike gold or copper deposits), so extraction is only possible at certain sites. With the advent of modern technology, REEs hold a crucial role as a component of batteries and magnets in electronic devices, smartphone screens, renewable energy technology and electric cars, as well as military technology.
At present, China produces approximately 85% of the world’s rare earth elements. And a global incident in 2010 exposed the dangers of dependence on Chinese production. China constricted REE supply, purportedly to protect the environment, so prices skyrocketed and U.S. manufacturers struggled to obtain these metals or find substitutes. After the U.S., European Union, and Japan filed trade disputes with the World Trade Organization against China in 2012, China finally lifted its export quotas in 2015. However, many became weary of China’s near-monopoly of the market. “We are just over-reliant on China for our supply of rare earth elements, and just with the trade policies of the current administration, it has made it more difficult to deal with China and get materials from them,” James C. Hower, a geochemist at University of Kentucky, told GlacierHub.
This incident led to a resurgence in support for REE mining in the United States. In 2017, MP Materials acquired and resumed mining activities at the Mountain Pass Mine in California, which was the world’s leading rare earth element producer from the mid-1960s to 1980s, until China took the lead because of its weaker environmental regulation and lower labor costs.
Political support for rare earth element mining has also grown. In September 2018, President Trump signed Executive Order 13806, “Assessing and Strengthening the Manufacturing and Defense Industrial Base and Supply Chain Resilience of the United States,” which includes plans for the establishment of an American REE supply chain. Subsequently, in April 2020, MP Materials received funding from the Pentagon, linked to the executive order, for a REE processing facility to enable them to produce REEs critical to military devices. Despite this push, American rare earth element production still faces challenges as the ore is currently shipped to China for the final processing as parallel facilities do not exist in the U.S.
UCore, which owns the rights to develop the mine on Bokan Mountain, plans on an 11-year-long extraction project focused on retrieving neodymium (used in magnets) and dysprosium (a component of electric cars). To reduce the pollution caused by the mining, UCore intends to cement paste the tailings (a slurry of waste products from ore separation) and replace the waste material underground.
However, a Bokan-Dotson Ridge mining project could further endanger already precarious ecosystems in the Tongass National Forest. As Guy Archibald, staff scientist at the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, explained to GlacierHub, in the Tongass National Forest, “the forest and the glaciers and the salmon are intimately related.” Salmon begin their lives as eggs in the rivers of the forest, and grow into fry. The young fish migrate to the oceans, where they live most of their lives, fattening themselves in the nutrient-rich ocean waters. When the salmon return to the rivers to reproduce as adults, they carry these nutrients which nourish the forest. The glaciers provide cold water with a high oxygen content that the salmon require. But as glaciers melt, stream temperatures are rising, and “we are witnessing an extinction event for Chinook salmon right now,” Archibald added.
Archibald said the mining project would leach toxic materials into Kendrick Bay, a commercial fishery, and Kendrick Creek, a salmon stream that supports three species of Pacific salmon: coho, chum and pink salmon. Despite precautions, uranium, other radioactive materials, and strong acids and bases are likely to contaminate groundwater systems and leach into the ecosystem.
The Tongass National Forest’s delicate ecosystems are vital to the Indigenous and local communities that rely on it. Because of the relative isolation and difficult access to the region, “about 80% of their caloric intake, for those residents [in Southeast Alaska], comes from the oceans and the surrounding forests,” said Archibald. Climate change–induced phenomena such as warming water and paralytic shellfish poisoning have already reduced the food supply in the region. A new mining project would only add to the risk.
Support for this project is divided in the community. In Ketchikan, the main city in Southeast Alaska near Bokan Mountain, the industrial community, Chamber of Commerce, borough government and businesses such as barge services support this project. However, “generally the Native community, the Tlingit, Ketchikan Indian Community, and Saxman [community], do not support this, and the fishing groups are generally not too much in support either,” Archibald said.
As the Bokan-Dotson Ridge project is still in the advanced exploration stage, it has not yet undergone rigorous environmental evaluation. Paul Robbins Jr., the public affairs staff officer for the United States Forest Service told GlacierHub that there has been no official request to begin the project, and as such, no extensive environmental evaluation has been made. However, in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act, experts will work to minimize impacts on the environment and consult tribal governments and local stakeholders.
Compared to British Columbia, just across the Alaskan border, “The U.S. has had more protections on mining in Southeast Alaska in the past because so much of it is national forest or protected in some way,” Jake Bartolic, a wilderness guide in Alaska told GlacierHub. However, Archibald compared the State of Alaska’s mining regulatory regime to that of “a third world country. It boggles the mind the amount of agency discretion that’s allowed, the lack of any kind of protective regulations.”
Moreover, the rare earth element mine would be located just beyond the now defunct Ross-Adams mine on Bokan Mountain, a uranium mine that operated from 1957 to 1971. The mining site has been declared a Superfund site, due to higher than normal background levels of hazardous materials, including arsenic, lead and uranium, but has been low on the priority list. The environmental damage caused by this mining project 50 years ago adds to the fears of opponents of the projects.
In August 2020, the United States Forest Service (USFS) and Newmont USA Limited and Dawn Mining Company — part of the original mining at the site in the 1960s and 70s — reached an agreement to finance a $7 million clean-up of the Ross-Adams mine site. Mike Schrider, vice president and chief operating officer of UCore said in a statement, “this is a highly encouraging advancement, both for the Bokan Project and UCore as the current developer of Bokan Mountain. This USFS initiative ensures a clean slate for renewed development at Bokan, and a reset of the environmental baseline measurements will undoubtedly facilitate go-forward permitting for Ucore.”
Congress has also shown considerable support for the Bokan Mountain rare earth element mining project. Alaskan Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan visited UCore in Ketchikan as a show of support. Additionally, in May 2020, Senator Ted Cruz introduced legislation to establish a domestic REE supply chain and require the Department of Defense to domestically source REEs. While this legislation could provide a boost to many American REE mining companies, the Canada-based UCore could face challenges.
Archibald cautioned, however, that “there’s a lot of carnival barking going on about how great this project would be, yet the economics really don’t pan out here at all.” Because UCore’s profit projections are based on REE prices from 2010-2011, when REE prices were artificially inflated, the project has not attracted much private investment. Furthermore, Archibald added, “Ucore is more interested in developing a separation technology rather than actually mining.” This technology would refine the ore into a commercial product — a process currently monopolized by China. The company was planning a separation facility in Ketchikan, because the city had attractive low hydroelectric energy prices that also no longer persist.
Nevertheless, if the Department of Defense backs the project, it is likely to proceed quickly and the elements will be used for military projects. Indeed, in 2019, UCore and manufacturer Materion Corp teamed up to apply for funding from the Pentagon to build a pilot REE processing plant. And, as Bartolic, the wilderness guide, said, “every year that the glaciers in Southeast Alaska melt back, there are more mine sites that become possible to explore, so I think this issue is only going to become greater in our lifetimes.” Whether the Bokan-Dotson Ridge mining project ultimately proceeds or not, increased global tensions and militarization will put more wilderness areas, salmon, and Indigenous and local people at risk, whether in the United States or abroad.