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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

How the Chinese Shot Themselves in the Foot with Rare Earth Metals

During the early part of the 1400s, Eighty-Seven years before Columbus discovered the New World the largest Bluewater fleet in the world belonged to China. During the period from 1403 to1433 this great fleet was under the command of the Chinese explorer Zheng He during that period He made seven voyages to explore the Western World. According to contemporary records he got as far as East Africa, and there are many rumors that he also discovered the Americas. There is even one rumor that one of his fleets rounded the southern tip of South America at Cape Horn.

Chinese Junks fighting in Viet Nam

Some of these ships were huge carrying as many as nine masts and weighing more than 1500 tons. The ships were also capable of carrying more than 1000 passengers. This all came to an end around 1433 when at the whim of the Chinese Emperor the entire fleet was put to the torch ending China's dominance of the seas to this day, and China turned its back on the rest of the world for centuries.

In the latter part of the 20th century China had a virtual stranglehold on the supply of rare earth metals (REMs) because of large deposits present in southern China in clay. The Chinese even perfected the extraction of REMs from this clay becoming the largest producers of REMs in the world. According to one of the prime ministers of China, China was going to be the Saudi Arabia of REMs.

This is a slab of laser glass containing REMs for use at the National Ignition Facility

Since REMs are so essential to the technology of the 21st century virtually the entire mining community of the world went on a search for new sources of these metals. This should have given the Chinese leadership some food for thought had they listened to their scientists instead of listening to their ideology. Instead of being rare in the Earth's crust REMs are fairly abundant some of these metals are actually more abundant than copper.

The scientists of the Western world used their knowledge for not only finding new sources of REMs, they have also developed new ways of making things like rare earth magnets that either use less REMs or have replaced them using other metals. These actions have reduced the demand for REMs from China. That begs the question, “Have the Chinese once again shot themselves in the foot?”

Friday, January 7, 2011

Mining Sand & Gravel

According to the USGS sand & gravel is one of the most accessible natural resources in the United States second only to crushed stone in value.  It has had an explosive growth rate since the beginning of the 20th century when relatively little was used.  Sand and gravel is mainly used in the construction industry in the form of construction sand & gravel mainly used in the production of concrete and in bituminous concrete (blacktop).

A sand & gravel mine

Annual production of sand & gravel in the United States today it ranks as second in tonnage in the non-fuel minerals after crushed stone.  It is the only mineral commodity that is produced in all fifty states.  In general the United States is self sufficient in the amount of sand & gravel that is produced annually by producing enough to meet all its domestic needs, and is a small net exporter mainly to places where sand & gravel is used to a certain extent in the areas along the borders with Canada and Mexico.
Demand for sand & gravel is mainly controlled by the level of construction activity that controls its demand.  In the United States the production of sand and gravel has grown significantly since the end of WW II with production in 1950 at 320 metric tons increasing to  approximately 900 million metric tons by 2000.  The level of production has dropped since that time.
Mining sand & gravel is mainly a clean operation in comparison to your local corner bakery although to many people it is unsightly.  This has led to a great misunderstanding on the part of the general public where the perception is that sand & gravel mining is harmful to the environment.  This has caused many sand & gravel deposits to be withdrawn from mining for demographic reasons that in many areas has caused shortages of sand & gravel to occur.
Sand & gravel is a product having a high in-place value that considering the present business conditions costs approximately 50 cents per ton mile.  The further it is necessary to transport the material the more it costs.  Sand & gravel that costs less then $2.00 to produce per ton is apt to cost more then $20.00 per ton delivered. 

This is a reclaimed sand & gravel mine note the conveyor belt in the background with piles od sand.

A great deal of the problem that was the cause of a special investigation by the governors of the Northeast States was brought about by the mistaken perception that sand & gravel mining was environmentally hazardous; it isn’t.  This misplaced perception has done nothing more then increase the cost of virtually all construction projects throughout the United States.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Environmental Consequences of Buying or Selling a Gold Mining Claim

The environmental consequences of buying or selling a gold claim is basically the same as they are for any other piece of commercial property.  If the sale is between two parties without any money coming from a bank or other mortgage company the sale can go forward with no environmental work other then a due diligence investigation that should be undertaken in the name of buyer prudence.  If it requires any bank or other source of financing they will in the normal course of business require at least an Environmental Site Assessment Phase I of the property.  If there are no environmental infractions present the Phase I assessment will suffice.  If environmental infractions are discovered in the Phase I assessment will have to be addressed using a Phase II assessment that is used to determine if in fact an environmental infraction has occurred using samples of soil and ground water taken from the site.

An example of acid mine drainage.

If it is determined from the results of the Phase II assessment the environmental investigation will proceed to a Phase III assessment that determines the extent of the environmental infraction and develop a plan for remediating the infraction.

The final step of the remediation process where various techniques are used to eliminate the infraction.  Some of these processes involve the removal of contaminated soil from the site and placing it in a secured landfill.  If the contaminant is an organic chemical the offending chemical can be removed by igniting the soil in a special furnace or incorporated into blacktop.  Ground water is usually remediated by passing it through filters or an ion exchange resin, and is often pumped back into the ground using an injection well.

When mining equipment is abandoned it becomes a source of environmental contamination.

The law concerning environmental issues varies according to location.  In the United States the law concerning environmental site assessments is usually enforced by the banks although the individual states are the author of local laws following the environmental laws of the United States

The most likely contaminants to be released into the environment resulting from mining activity is petroleum products caused by equipment failure or leaking underground storage tanks.  Further contamination can be caused by the chemicals used to process gold ore including cyanide and mercury.  In its aftermath mining can also cause environmental contamination by acid mine drainage and heavy metal salts.

An aerial view of the Big Pit at Kalgoorlie, Australia showing heaps of mine tailings.

This document was prepared from knowledge gained in over thirty years by the author in conduction Environmental Site Assessments and directing numerous remediation projects involving commercial and industrial properties.  In addition the author is certified by the State of Connecticut as an Environmental Analyst Grades I, II and III.

This is not to be construed as legal advice as we are not attorneys; consult with a lawyer in your jurisdiction for any legal opinions.

Copyright 2011 by John Carter all rights reserved.