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Canadians Suspend Bid To Mine Near Devil’s Tower


“The suspension comes after two prayer vigils held at Mahto Tipila in response to the proposal. The prayer gatherings were convened ‘for protection for this place and all sacred places’ by the grassroots multicultural Defenders of the Black Hills. The company’s stocks subsequently tumbled to an all-time low.”

SUNDANCE, Wyoming – The Canadian company that has proposed to mine rare earth minerals near the culturally significant tribal landmark of Mahto Tipila, or Devils Tower, suspended activities Jan. 21, at the so-called Bear Lodge Project.

The announcement by the company’s California law firm led the U.S. Forest Service to cancel open houses Jan. 23 in Sundance and Jan. 24 in Upton, Wyoming, which the agency had scheduled to inform the public of the plans contained in a draft environmental impact statement, or DEIS, for the project.

As requested by the company Rare Element Resources, Inc., “The Black Hills National Forest will immediately suspend all pending actions relating to the DEIS for the project,” Supervisor Craig Bobzien said in a written release on Jan. 22.

“A notice will be sent to the EPA for publication in the Federal Register withdrawing the DEIS and suspending the 45-day comment period,” he added.

A previous Federal Register notice on Jan. 15 had opened the public comment period on the Canadian corporation Rare Element Resources Ltd. proposal to conduct a 43-year mountaintop removal project in the Bear Lodge District of the Black Hills National Forest.

Rare Element Resources, Inc. is a wholly owned Colorado subsidiary of the Canadian proponent, which has begun preparatory work at the Bull Hill Mine site in Crook County because it wants to operate an open-pit strip mine on a 1,700-acre tract about halfway between Sundance and Devil’s Tower.

The operation entails mining, crushing and hauling rock to Upton where radioactive thorium waste would be separated from the lode stone at a hydro metallurgical plant using technology pioneered by the company. The process would require a radioactive source material handling license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

However, Rare Element Resources, Inc. requested that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission suspend review of the license application submitted in May 2015, according to attorney Tyson R. Smith, because “continuing with the hearing process at this time would result in a costly and unnecessary use of the participants’ and the NRC’s resources.”

This aerial view of Mahto Tipila was taken on Nov. 6, 2010 and uploaded to Wikimedia by P.D. Tillman. COURTESY/Doc Searls, Santa Barbara, Calif.
This aerial view of Mahto Tipila was taken on Nov. 6, 2010 and uploaded to Wikimedia by P.D. Tillman. COURTESY/Doc Searls, Santa Barbara, Calif.

The suspension comes after two prayer vigils held at Mahto Tipila in response to the proposal. The prayer gatherings were convened “for protection for this place and all sacred places” by the grassroots multicultural Defenders of the Black Hills. The company’s stocks subsequently tumbled to an all-time low.

Defenders of the Black Hills said it also requested the hearing process from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, because “the place where Rare Element Resources wanted to mine is a sacred place.”

More than 20 Northern Plains tribes have cultural affiliation with Mahto Tipila, or Bear’s Lodge, and its environs, according to historical documentation collected by the National Park Service. The agency has been in charge of protecting the Native American sacred site since President Theodore Roosevelt declared the 1,267-foot volcanic rock monolith the country’s first national monument in 1906.

The National Park Service, U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers, State of Wyoming, Crook and Weston counties, and the Crook County Natural Resource District are cooperating agencies required to review the mining proposal nearby.

In the Lakota tradition, Mahto Tipila is designated as a place to fast, pray, and worship Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit. The surrounding countryside in the heart of 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaty territory is considered a holy land, used for personal and group rituals for healing and spiritual guidance.

The name of the striking formation is due to references in several native languages, according to the park service.  It is known by the Arapaho as “Bear’s Tipi”, by the Cheyenne as Na Kovehe or “Bear’s Lodge”, by the Kiowa as Tso-i-e, or “Standing on a Rock”, by the Lakota as Mahto Tipila or “Bear Lodge”, and by the Eastern Shoshone as “Bear’s House”.

The unique geological feature has given rise to many significant stories and sacred narratives. According to the Crow tale of the tower’s origin, a large bear almost cornered some small girls at play while their families were camped. The girls climbed on a rock to escape. The Great Spirit, seeing that they were in danger, caused the rock to grow out of the ground, lifting the girls with it. The bear clawed the rock in its attempt to catch them, which left the deep fissures visible along the mountains’ sides.

Tribes officially listed with historical and geographical ties to the tower area include: Arapaho, Cheyenne, Crow, Kiowa, Lakota and Shoshone. The tower plays a role in the their cultures, as well as in those of the Assiniboine, Blackfeet, Blood, Dakota, Kootenai & Salish, Pigeon, Three Affiliated Tribes, and Turtle Mountain Chippewa.

The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers asked the Forest Service to be sure and address the cultural and tribal concerns over the proposal for mining near the tower.

Among questions raised about that during the Forest Service’s ongoing scoping process are:

• What are the impacts of the widening of roads and land disturbance on cultural resources?

• What are the impacts on continued Native American religious and cultural practices (prayer offerings, bundles and cloths), sweat lodge ceremonies, vision quests, and funerals)?

• Is this project a violation of the 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaty?

• Is the Upton site compliant with the National Historic Preservation Act?

The National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Protection Act dictate that project approval can be granted only after government-to-government consultation between federal and tribal officials to avoid or mitigate destruction of cultural assets posed by mining.

Water concerns figured significantly among other environment questions addressed in the Bear Lodge Project scoping process, which identified these questions:

  • Will water sources in the Madison Aquifer,  Belle Fourche, Cheyenne, and Missouri rivers be at risk?
  • What will the water withdrawal and pit dewatering affect?
  •  Will the streamflow be reduced and will it be mitigated?
  • Will the two district wells located at Reuter Springs be contaminated or will water availability be affected?
  • Will the spring-fed hydrology of Whitelaw Creek and Beaver Creek or aquifer recharge be disrupted by use of the well for the mine or the deep pit excavation?
  •  Will the change in the chemical, physical and biological nature of water stored in retaining ponds affect the surface flow of the stream system?
  •  Will senior water right holders be adversely affected?
  •  What potential exists for water and air contamination from the massive stockpile of overburden?
  •  What effect will drain water collection systems and the diversion channel have on Beaver Creek?
  • Will groundwater be contaminated?
  • How will flooding impact exploration, the mine site, waste rock site, physical upgrade plant, tailings site and hydro metallurgical plant site?
  • What will the impacts be on household, livestock, and municipal water resources?
  •  What is the nature of groundwater movement in the proposed exploration areas, mine site, waste-rock site, and plant?
  • What will be the mineral and radioactive content of the ore?

The mining company’s suspension of activities occurs less than a year after its only U.S. competitor declared bankruptcy, mothballing its operation due to weak market conditions for rare earth minerals, or REM.

Also known as rare earth elements, or REE, the pay dirt is used in making all kinds of high tech devices, including cell phones, laptops, flat-panel televisions, wind turbines, lasers, fiber optics, and hybrid cars.

However, demand began to wane when China, historically the biggest producer of REM, reversed an earlier decision to withhold product from the supply chain. The release of more Chinese REE negatively impacted North American interests in the commodity, according to stock analysts.

Molycorp Inc., which declared bankruptcy halted operations early last year, filed for reorganization in November. Its property is located at Mountain Pass mine and mill in California’s Mojave Desert.

Rare Element Resources hopes to make a comeback and re-establish a domestic rare earth supply, according to company brass. “RER will inform the parties of any changes in the status of the licensing review for the Bear Lodge project so that the hearing process can be restarted in a timely manner,” Smith promised.

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