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Wyoming Mining Industry Prepares For Potential Rail Strike

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By Kevin Killough, energy reporter

Wyoming mining companies are closely watching contract negotiations between the unions and America’s railroad companies. Should a strike happen, layoffs at Wyoming mines are likely. 

“We’re hoping for the best and preparing for the worst,” Travis Deti, executive director for the Wyoming Mining Association, told the Select Federal Natural Resources Management Committee on Friday. 

The memberships of two unions voted against ratifying a tentative labor deal brokered by the President Joe Biden’s administration in September. Without a deal, a union of track maintenance workers could go on strike as soon as Nov. 19, and another could strike in December. If any rail union strikes, they all strike. That would be about 110,000 rail workers. 

Deti said coal companies predict that, should a strike happen, mine workers could perform maintenance and reclamation work for a while. But if the strike were to go on too long, they’d have to start sending people home. 

Trona mines would have fewer options to keep their workforce going during a strike. With trona, it’s not just the mines that get shut down. It’s also the processing facilities. 

“You’re talking a lot of money lost in a competitive environment,” Deti said. 

Good But Could Be Better

Even without a strike, the railroad companies are struggling to find workers. Powder River Basin coal mines are having a great year, with solid financials in the third quarter of fiscal year 2022. But the labor shortage on the rails has kept a good year from being a better year. Deti said that estimates are that the mines could have produced 30 million more tons this year if rail capacity was up to 100%. 

“The frustrating thing … we’re doing pretty well, we could be doing better,” Deti said. 

Rail capacity has improved from earlier this year, Detil said. 

Nathan Anderson, senior director of public affairs for Union Pacific, testified that the company ran 456 trains from the Powder River Basin in September and an estimated 470 trains in October, which is up over 100 trains per month over what they were running in the spring months. 

“We are seeing more coal moving, and as Mr. Deti mentioned, there’s more to move,” Anderson said. 

Good Jobs, High Pay

Hiring in the region, however, remains a challenge, Anderson explained. Union Pacific is on target to reach a target set earlier this year of hiring 1,400 additional crew members. But about 25% of those who are hired throughout the company’s rail system don’t make the final cut because they don’t meet the company’s testing standards. 

Rep. Donald Burkhart, R-Rawlins, asked if there was anything the State of Wyoming could do to help the company with its hiring challenges, such as getting the community colleges to help with training. 

Anderson said that often the training, especially for positions like engineers, is very industry specific, but he’d discuss the option with the training departments at the railroad. 

Senator Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, asked if COVID-19 vaccine mandates impacted their labor challenges, and Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas, said he knew people personally who’d left railroad jobs due to vaccine mandates. 

Anderson said Union Pacific had those mandates when the federal government required them for all federal contractors, but those are no longer in place. 

Matt Jones, regional director of public affairs for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company, said BNSF was also struggling to find workers. 

He said the State of Wyoming could help by “getting the word out that railroads are hiring. They’re great jobs. They pay very well.” 

Jones said the community colleges could also provide some foundational training.

The testimony was informational, and the committee took no action on the issues at Friday’s meeting. 

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With No Federal Govt. Involvement, Gold Mine West Of Cheyenne Could Be Operational By 2025

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CK Gold Project spokesman Jason Begger stands where the mine's pit will go. (Kevin Killough, Cowboy State Daily)

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By Kevin Killough, energy reporter

The CK Gold Project west of Cheyenne is unique as far as mining goes in Wyoming. 

Because it’s all on state and private land – even the 17-mile transmission line won’t cross federal land — U.S. Gold Corp. is expecting to have it up and running within a few years. If it touched federal land, the permitting process would take several more years. 

Just ‘Get ’Er Done’

For Walt Ferguson, whose ranch abuts the state land where the mine pit and tailings pile will be located, the process still seems too slow. 

“The bureaucrats are everywhere,” Ferguson told Cowboy State Daily. “They could do this mine thing in several weeks. There isn’t any reason they can’t.”

The Ferguson family were among the original homesteaders to the area and are descendants of “get-’er-done” ranchers. 

Jason Begger, government affairs and community relations with U.S. Gold Corp., said the family has been great to work with. 

At the beginning of it all, U.S. Gold Corp. CEO George Bee sat down with the Fergusons at a kitchen table and sketched out agreements on what the Fergusons would allow on their ranch. 

No bureaucrats, just people working together to get things done.  

View of Curt Gowdy State Park from the CK Gold Mine site. (Kevin Killough, Cowboy State Daily)

State Permitting

The company still will need to do permitting through the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality. 

Despite being the kind of “bureaucrats” that an old rancher like Ferguson would rather do without, Begger said the state has been great to work with. 

Wyoming has standards it must uphold, but also the process as if the goal is to facilitate development, rather than find reasons to oppose it, he said.

Minimize Impacts

Begger also said the company is putting a lot of consideration into minimizing impacts to the area. For example, it’s examining the potential for busing employees to the mine site to cut down on traffic wear on Happy Jack Road. The two-lane highway has had its share of fatalities, so buses will be safer along with reducing wear and tear on the public road. 

The state had the company do tests to make sure seismic activity from its blasting wouldn’t harm infrastructure or cause great disturbances for the neighboring residences. The modeling data shows the blasting will meet requirements, but the company performed its own blasting tests just to make sure shockwaves wouldn’t extend very far. 

Standing next to a small pile of rocks at the mine site, Begger explained that when the test was done, it wasn’t too exciting. 

“It was just a little pop,” he said of the explosion. “It wasn’t a big boom or anything.” 

The tests showed the granite the company will blast through is so hard that the neighbors won’t even feel a bump when the blasts are done. 

Ghosts of Hecla

Atop a hill on the northern edge of what will be the mine pit, Begger pointed to a wall that is the remnants of the town of Hecla. A century ago, the CK Gold site was a community of hundreds of people making up a copper mining community, and the wall was part of the mine’s mill operation at the time. 

There’s other evidence of historic mining activities — little craters on the side of a hill and some rusted-out broilers. There’s also a pile of broken up granite rocks that are the remains of the state’s reclamation of the Copper King mine shaft. 

The mine was developed in 1881, but now Hecla, its mill and the original miners are long gone.  

CK Gold Project spokesman Jason Begger holds a piece of granite that shows green oxidation of copper ore in it. The company plans to crush the granite and extract the gold and copper. (Kevin Killough, Cowboy State Daily)

New Technology 

Begger picked up a piece of granite and showed the green oxidation on it that indicates there’s copper in the hard granite. A century ago, the technology to extract valuable minerals from granite didn’t exist. Miners then only knew from the green color their target ore was somewhere in those hard rocks.  

The CK Gold Mine mill will crush and grind the copper- and gold-bearing rock. Then, using a process called froth floatation, will create a concentrate. That will be refined off site at refineries in Utah and elsewhere. There won’t be any cyanide, which is often used to leach gold from mined ore.

The tailings that will be left behind are just moist gravel, and the granite in the area is so hard that Begger nothing will leak into the groundwater. 

Early in the operation, there will be some visual disturbances to the views at Curt Gowdy State Park. As the pit is dug out, little of the mine will be visible from the park. Permits also require plans for dust control on roads leading to the mine. 

When the operation is done — and the company has a bond to back up its promise — the mine will be reclaimed and returned to look like ranchland again. 

A water testing station is set up at the CK Gold Project site. (Kevin Killough, Cowboy State Daily)

Jobs And Benefits

Begger said the company has invested $5 million into its permitting, outreach and planning process so far.

The mine will create about 300 permanent jobs and generate an estimated $75 million in tax revenue over its estimated 10- to 15-year lifespan. Construction of the mine will support 1,900 jobs over the entire building period. 

There’s other economic benefits as well, the company says, such as the water it will buy from the Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities. 

If all goes well, the company should begin mining by late 2025.

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Wind, Solar, EVs Are Going To Take A Huge Increase In Mining & The World Isn’t Ready For It

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By Kevin Killough, energy reporter

Over the past 18 months, Wyoming has doubled its wind energy capacity from 1,500 megawatts to 3,000 megawatts, which reflects a trend across the country. 

Wind and solar provide about 3% of the total energy used around the globe, and the total amount of fossil fuels consumed is up. Nonetheless, governments and popular opinion are pushing to increase the amount of wind and solar on the grid and electric vehicles (EVs) on the road. 

What’s not often factored into what this transition will cost is the amount of mining that will need to be done to produce all the wind farms, solar farms, batteries and transmission lines. 

It’s not just rare earth minerals, but also copper, gold, lithium, nickel, cobalt and iron. 

Opportunity For Wyoming

Travis Deti, executive director for the Wyoming Mining Association, told Cowboy State Daily that Wyoming has very significant amounts of rare earth minerals, which are used in wind turbine, solar panels and EVs. Currently, about 97% of the market in rare earths is controlled by China. 

Contrary to their name, rare earths aren’t rare, but they are found in such low concentrations that it makes it difficult to mine them. 

There also are regulatory barriers faced with permitting any mine, and the financial challenges it takes to get investors to put money toward projects that can take a decade or more to realize a return on investment, presents an enormous and often overlooked challenge.

“It’ll take some time, and it’ll take some investment. But the opportunity is there,” Deti said. 

Deti said the federal government is providing funding to the University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources to do some exploration work, which will help alleviate the up-front capital costs to rare earth mining in Wyoming. 

Likewise, the state is pursuing primacy over mine permitting, which will help speed up the process. 

The process now is expensive and very long.

New Mining Opportunities

U.S. Gold Corp. is pushing for a gold mine near Cheyenne, which also will produce some copper. Because the entire operation is on state and private land, the company is estimating it could begin construction activities by 2025 – a breakneck speed for mining projects. 

In 2012, Rare Element Resources pursued a rare earth mining operation near Sundance with a refining operation near Upton. That operation was on federal land, and before the company could complete the permitting process, which can take more than a decade, it ran out of money. 

Rare Element Resources is now pursuing a demonstration project, which it hopes will prove a better refining process and attract new investors.

Considering what it takes to open a mine, Mark Mills, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a faculty fellow at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, warns the renewable industry is going to have a hard time meeting its targets. 

Ten-Fold Increase

Mills has a rule of thumb to put a number on how much mining the energy transition will take. 

While it varies between specific instances and technologies, to produce a unit of energy with EVs, wind and solar — whether it’s heating a room, driving a mile or lighting a bulb — it will require 10 times more mining than it takes with machines used in oil and gas production. 

The entire energy transition will require an unprecedented amount of mining across the planet. 

“All data that comes from the International Energy Agency, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, the European Union’s own funded studies, there is no dispute. It’s a simple fact,” Mills said. 

In a 2021 report, the International Energy Agency (IEA) analyzed the challenges of obtaining the necessary quantities of “energy transition minerals.” Plans to replace gas-powered vehicles with EVs, in addition to plans to replace fossil fuel-powered electrical generation with wind and solar, will require an increase in global mining output of 300% to 4000%, the report concluded.

The 2021 IEA report estimates that wind and solar projects require 500% to 700% more minerals compared to building a natural gas power plant. 

Besides the volume of mining needed, targets to reduce emissions force timeframes for the increased mining into two or three decades. Mills said, looking at historical data, it’s just not possible to ramp up mining to that degree that quickly.  

“The world’s mining industry is not now producing, nor planning to produce, nor announcing any plans to produce, an increase that’s even close to that for any, much less all, of the minerals,” Mills said. 

Not Getting Cheaper

Compared to oil and gas, there is a difference in energy density for the hardware in EV batteries, solar panels and wind turbines. 

Lithium-class chemicals for an EV battery, which is not the battery cell but the raw chemical, is as high as 700 watt-hours per kilogram. That’s compared to the 12,000 watt-hours per kilogram in petroleum. 

An EV battery weighing half a ton can achieve the driving range of 60 to 80 pounds of gasoline.That battery contains 30 pounds of lithium, 60 pounds of cobalt, 130 pounds of nickel, 190 pounds of graphite and 90 pounds of copper. The remainder is steel, aluminum and plastic. 

Much of the raw materials to produce batteries, solar panels and wind turbines will have to come from overseas, where environmental regulations are looser and labor is cheap. Even with imports the supply will be dwarfed by the demand. 

Cost projections don’t factor in the law of supply and demand, Mills said. E Source, a Colorado research firm, estimates that battery cell prices will increase 22% over the next few years. Inside Climate News reported this month that solar prices per megawatt hour are up 34% over the third quarter of fiscal year 2021. 

Currently, EVs account for about 1% of vehicles globally so these increases are at very low rates of penetration on the market. 

“All of the forecasts, all the mandates, all the aspirations and all the claims assert that those technologies are getting cheaper and cheaper fast. That’s not what’s happening,” Mills said. 

Lots of Emissions

When people think of energy, they usually think of electricity. Electricity accounts for about 20% of the world’s total energy consumption. The remainder is industrial heating, shipping and transportation.

Go to any mine in Wyoming and there will be enormous machinery moving earth and hauling the raw materials to wherever they’re shipped and processed. That machinery runs on diesel, and processing those raw materials — such as taking iron and making steel — requires industrial heating energy, much of which comes from metallurgical coal. 

Upstream of any product — whether it’s a hamburger, a house or a cellphone — is a lot of carbon dioxide emissions involved in processing the raw materials, manufacturing the product and shipping it to where it’s consumed. Determining how much CO2 emissions are upstream of any consumed product is enormously difficult, Mills said. 

Mills said analyses of the amount of energy needed to build a battery that can store the amount of energy in one gallon of gasoline range from 80 to 240 gallons of oil. While driving, the EV produces no CO2 emissions, but the energy to charge the battery might, depending on the source. 

The IEA calculated that if every nation achieves their ambitious EV targets, it will reduce CO2 emissions in this decade by 235 million tons. That will reduce global temperatures 0.0001°C by 2100.

Demand Destruction 

These minerals that feed the wind and solar build-out are also used to produce everyday consumer products, such as toasters and laptops.

When prices of these raw materials go up, as analysts believe will happen, it will have a secondary effect besides inflating the cost of the world’s energy transition. 

“You get what economists call demand destruction,” Mills explained, adding it “means you’ll build less stuff.” 

If you need copper for residential pipes and wiring, construction costs will become prohibitive meaning fewer homes will be built. Those who have homes won’t be able to afford any appliances for them. 

To keep the wind and solar rollout going, it will require increased subsidies, Mills said, and that will mean higher taxes. 

“Your taxes go up, and then you’ll find fewer appliances available to purchase,” Mills said. 

Mills said these impacts are not far off in the future – maybe a year or two. 

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New Wyoming Soda Ash Mine Expected To Create Over 2,000 Jobs in Sweetwater County

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By Kevin Killough, energy reporter

A new mine project near Green River will tap into the world’s largest soda ash deposit and potentially help satisfy the green movement’s growing demand for electric vehicles and solar panels.

WE Soda Ltd., a subsidiary of British-based Ciner Resources company, announced its plans Wednesday, but the project will need to navigate the federal permitting process before operations can begin. That could take several years or more. 

Oguz Erkan, president and CEO of Ciner Company, told Cowboy State Daily that, among many other products, soda ash is used in solar panels and electric vehicle (EV) batteries. With a growing push for EV cars and solar farm buildout across the world, the demand for soda ash is rising rapidly.

Growth Market

In 2019, annual demand for soda ash was about 58 million tons and by 2021, that jumped to 63 million tons. Estimates show that the world will be short about 12 million tons of future soda ash demand. 

The mine area holds the largest soda ash deposit in the world — a 2,000 year supply — and the company wants to tap into global demand to get ahead of international competition as the demand for the product grows.  

China already produces the most soda ash in the world, more than double the United States. Russia comes in a distant third, producing about a third of what America does. 

Because of high natural gas prices and carbon taxes, it’s difficult to produce soda ash in Europe, Erkan said, so the main competition is from China and other Asian countries.

Project West

Erkan said the Wyoming mine, which the company is calling Project West, has the potential to produce 3 million tons to start and is scalable, so the company can increase production later.

To facilitate soda ash exports, the company received a permit to export 14 million tons from a Stockton, California, port terminal. 

Erkan said the Green River project will create 300 permanent jobs and mine construction will create 1,500 to 2,000 temporary jobs. Another 400 to 500 indirect jobs will be created. 


Before any of those jobs are realized, the company will need to get permission from the federal government. The permitting process includes an environmental impact statement, which takes on average four years and is one part of the process. Some mines can take a decade to permit, but Ekran said production at Project West is expected to start by 2030. 

“This is where the support is needed, not for us but for any project. Because of the fact that if we can do this and get everybody behind it, these projects will be done very, very quickly,” Erkan said. 

Erkan said he is confident the company will be successful in getting its permits and meeting the 2030 timeframe. 

“If I can permit this thing in California, I think we’ll be able to do it everywhere else,” Erkan said. 

The Process

The mining will be done with an in-situ process to extract soda ash from trona ore. The ore is then processed into soda ash. 

Trona that contains commercially viable concentrations of soda ash occurs in only three regions of the world. Besides Wyoming, Turkey has a large deposit and China has a smaller one. 

Almost all the soda ash produced in China is done through a chemical- and water-intensive synthetic process at trona mines with weaker concentrations of soda ash, and that process is more expensive than the type of mining that will be done in Wyoming. 

Erkan said the project will recycle a lot of the water it uses, which will allow the company to reduce the amount of water it uses over time and keep water usage below that of conventional mines.

The company also wants to use green energy to power the mine, but Ekran said that it’s very difficult to have 100% renewable energy on a mine.

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Mining Companies See Opportunity In Wyoming But Permitting Time Takes 10 Years

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By Kevin Killough, energy reporter

Mineral exploration companies are looking for valuable minerals to mine in Wyoming. The prospects look good for gold, copper, zinc, nickel, and platinum mining in the Cowboy State, but realizing that investment runs up against a heavily bureaucratic permitting process, which can easily take a decade. 

Visionary Gold Corp, which is based in Vancouver, Canada, is performing exploratory drills to determine the economic potential of its 35 mining claims and 640 leased acres near Jeffrey City in southeast Fremont County. 

“Nobody’s really explored for precious and base metals extensively in Wyoming since the early 1900s,” said CEO Wes Adams.

With mineral extraction being one of Wyoming’s key industries — agriculture and tourism being the others — Adams said if these exploratory efforts pan out, it would be a valuable contribution to the state. 

Unlike Wyoming’s first prospectors, Visionary has a few more tools to work with to find the metals it’s after. Last spring the company conducted soil samples and magnetic tests to get an idea of what geological structures exist beneath the surface. With this data, the company began to map the geology beneath the surface. This paved the way for drilling exploration, which the company is in the process of conducting now. 

“The only way you can really find out what’s down there and be 100% sure about it is to drill it,” Adams said. 

These techniques, Adams said, have very little impact on the environment. The holes are about 1,600 feet deep and the operations take 7-10 days to complete. For comparison, drilling operations in shale deposits for oil and gas production go underground between 6,000 and 14,000 feet. 

Adams noted that the company hasn’t found anything solid that can be mined economically, and even if it had that today, there’s a lengthy process in the United States in order to get any mine permitted. The mining would take place on state and federal-owned land, so the company would potentially need to go through permitting processes at both levels. 

“Typically in Wyoming, there’s a combination of state lands and BLM [Bureau of Land Management], and we’re very comfortable working with both agencies,” Adams said. 

The federal process, which is about twice as long as the state process, requires an extensive environmental review, as well as archeological studies to ensure no cultural sites will be disturbed from the mineral development. 

Adams said permitting a mine in Canada would take an average of five years. He is hoping that new federal mandates will help expedite the process here in the U.S. As companies face supply chain issues in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more of them are hoping for faster permitting processes that will improve domestic supplies of critical minerals. 

Last month, Ford Motor Company, for example, asked the federal government for expedited permitting, CBT News reported. In a filing with the Department of Interior, the company argued that the decade-long permitting process makes it difficult for American businesses to invest in mineral extraction.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has impeded exports from the two countries, has increased concerns about permitting timelines. 

“Because of geopolitical concerns, there is more than ever before increasing demand for domestic production of these metals,” Adams said. 

Visionary isn’t the only company exploring for gold in Wyoming. Relevant Gold Corporation has over 40,000 acres of mineral rights in two sites, according to its website. The company has been conducting drilling operations at a site it calls Golden Buffalo, which is located immediately southeast of the Wind River Mountain Range and approximately 37 miles southeast of Lander, Wyoming in Fremont County. 

“While Wyoming has seen significant historical mining, it is relatively underexplored and has not seen modern exploration like we are conducting at Golden Buffalo,” said Relevant Gold Chief Exploration Officer Brian Lentz, in a press release on the exploration operations. 

Travis Deti, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, said shortening the permitting process is a priority for the entire mining industry. Any legislation that moves through the U.S. House of Representatives, Deti said, will likely be attached to a larger piece of legislation and its chances of passing are a “heavy lift.” 

“Whether it has a chance in hell … remains to be seen,” Deti said.

Adams said that the source countries from which we get minerals have far fewer environmental and labor regulations. It makes them attractive for mining operations, but Adams said there’s a larger concern.  

“Africa is being pillaged for its natural resources, and it’s being done by Chinese and Russian companies that really don’t have to follow the same set of rules that American producers have to follow,” Adams said. 

Domestic mineral production would be not only more environmentally sound, Adams said, but also more humane in many cases. 

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Trump Rare Earth Executive Order Could Be Good News For Wyoming Mining

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

An executive order aimed at expanding the country’s production of critical minerals could be a boon to both producers of rare earth minerals and uranium, according to a leader in Wyoming’s mining industry.

Travis Deti, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, said President Donald Trump’s executive order, signed Sept. 30, should ease the way for companies hoping to produce rare earth minerals in northeastern and southeastern Wyoming.

“We’ve got the resources and interest in development, so the president’s executive order is a big deal,” he told the Cowboy State Daily.

Rare earth minerals are widely used in high-technology products including computers, camera lenses and television screens. According to Trump’s executive order, America imports 80% of its rare earth minerals from China.

Trump’s executive order declared America’s reliance on foreign producers of rare earth minerals such as neodymium, lanthanum and cerium — primarily the Chinese — a national emergency.

The executive order asks members of Trump’s cabinet to look into ways the federal government could stimulate mineral production through grants, the streamlining of permitting processes, changes to tariffs and possible restrictions on Chinese imports.

Northeast Wyoming is home to one of the richest rare earth deposits in the world, Deti said, and the company Rare Element Resources has been working for almost a decade to obtain the permits necessary to begin production.

“They were pretty active during the Obama administration, but the red tape and everything slow-rolled them, so the project has been put on hold and they are trying to get it back on track,” he said. “We do have the resources and it could be very helpful to get these guys up and running.”

Another company, Western Rare Earths, is interested in producing rare earths in an area of northern Albany County, Deti said, and could also benefit from the executive order.

Because the executive order references not only rare earth minerals but all “critical minerals,” it could also contain some help for Wyoming’s uranium industry, Deti said.

Wyoming is the nation’s leading uranium producer, with five companies still running production operations, although Deti said production has been “negligible.”“(The executive order) is for critical minerals and that includes uranium, so there could be some assistance there,” he said.

The executive order was also welcomed by Gov. Mark Gordon, who said it could ease government restrictions on Wyoming’s mineral industry.

“As the world demand for minerals, particularly those critical to national security, has increased, our ability to mine and process those minerals has been hampered by underpriced competition from foreign countries and Washington, D.C.’s inaction to promote the domestic production of these minerals,” he said in a statement. “President Trump’s executive order will reverse that trend.”

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Wyoming’s Abandoned Mine Reclamation To Generate Millions In Economic Benefits This Year

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

The Wyoming Abandoned Mine Land Division will create nearly 800 jobs and generate about $200 million just this year in economic benefits with its mine land reclamation projects, it has announced.

The division, part of the Department of Environmental Quality, said in a news release it expects the number of projects it launches to reclaim abandoned mines to increase this year over 2019.

“Obviously, the core benefit of these projects is to reclaim the land back to productive use and reduce the environmental and human health impacts left by these abandoned mines,” Todd Parfitt, director of the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, said in the news release. “However, these projects have also financially stimulated Wyoming communities and our citizens for decades.”

The state has been working for more than 40 years to reclaim and remediate abandoned mine lands to avert environmental and human health impacts.

There are hundreds of abandoned mine lands all over the state, all of which were abandoned prior to the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. Work to reclaim those properties generates economic benefits for both the state and its communities, the division said.

In 2019, the AML division had 86 projects with a total cost of $54 million, which varied from filling underground mine tunnels with concrete grout to filling large open pit mines with literal tons of dirt.

These projects helped employ 774 people. The 2019 projects pumped more than $155 million into the economies of communities.

So far this year, AML has had 39 projects that with a total cost of $29 million, but the division expects there will be a total of 96 projects amounting to $67 million by the end of 2020.

It’s estimated the economic benefit will be $201 million.

Since 1977, more than 25,000 acres have been reclaimed and 110,942 cubic yards of concrete grout have been placed in underground mine workings by the DEQ and the division.

These underground mines are found throughout Wyoming in many communities. Underground mine workings can lead to sinkholes or subsidence.

“Wyoming’s management of the AML program has transformed former coal mines into hundreds of acres of pasture, trees and water features,” Gov. Mark Gordon said in the release. “It truly is a form of recycling. Wyoming gets the benefit of millions of dollars from the coal and these areas are restored for the benefit of our communities.  During these challenging economic times, we have lengthened our stride to provide jobs through this valuable program.”

The funds for the AML projects are generated through a fee assessed on each ton of coal produced. The revenue is then distributed to coal-producing states for use in reclamation projects.

“As Wyoming produces most coal nationally, we in turn pay the most into the AML program to help remediate these abandoned sites,” Alan Edwards, DEQ deputy director and AML administrator said in the release. 

According to Edwards, the AML fee collection is slated to end in 2021 if the program is not reauthorized by the U.S. Congress.

Both U.S. Sens. John Barrasso and Mike Enzi have brought forth a new bill for reauthorization of the abandoned mine land fee.

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Wyoming Home To Oldest-Known Prehistoric Mine In North, South America

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming is home to the oldest-known prehistoric mine in at least two continents and a state agency is working to help preserve it.

In a release from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, the department announced its plans to preserve the Powars II Paleoindian Archaeological Site in Sunrise, believed to be the oldest known mining operation in both North and South America.

DEQ partnered with a number of individuals to preserve the 13,000-year-old ochre mine so archaeologist can study the site for years to come.

Ochre is a powdery mineral that some Native American tribes use as a pigment for a variety of ritualistic purposes. It comes in a variety of natural colors, but the ochre in Sunrise is red.

Former Sunrise resident Wayne Powars first discovered the site in 1939 or 1940, but didn’t report his findings until 1986, right before the mine was scheduled to razed. DEQ wasn’t aware of the mine until Powars revealed it.

“This can’t be the only one around, but it’s just so unusual. And it’s a site that I think is telling us a lot about what was going on (back then) and some of the first people that came to Wyoming,” archaeologist George Frison said.

Clovis points, also known as arrowheads, have been found at the Powars site, something Frison said will help determine who were the first people to come to Wyoming.

Archaeologist George Zeimans said the Powars site is unique not only because it’s believed to be the oldest mining operation on two continents but because of the number of artifacts being found at the site.

“(At) a lot of these Clovis sites, you’re lucky to find two or three artifacts, and you learn what you can from them. But this is an extremely rich site,” Zeimans said. “We’ve got over 80 Clovis points out of this site.”

The site includes not only the mine but also a toolstone quarry, which likely means the people were creating tools at the mine, using them and bringing them back.

The research on the site is currently funded by a private group of collectors and archaeology enthusiasts.

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Wyoming Coal Bankruptcies: Who is Responsible for Reclamation?

in Mining/News

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Since 2015, six coal companies operating in Wyoming have filed for bankruptcy, causing some to question who will be responsible for reclaiming the defunct operations’ mines. 

However, Wyoming coal mining rules that recently underwent a significant update will protect the state against having to foot the bill for any reclamation left uncompleted should a mine simply walk away from its obligations, state officials said.

Shannon Anderson, a staff attorney with the Powder River Basin Resource Council, said her organization has concerns about future reclamation, given declines in the coal industry.

“With potential coal mine closures, we’re concerned a lot of that reclamation yet to occur won’t have funding,” she said. “Coal mine economics continue to deteriorate. Coal generation is at its lowest level since 1975, and these are trends that are probably not going to reverse.”

The resource council was founded in 1973 to advocate for responsible energy development, and Anderson said tracking reclamation efforts was a top priority for the organization in 2020.

“We’re three to four decades into coal mining now,” Anderson said. “And, there’s still a lot of land that hasn’t been reclaimed yet.”

According to a report released by the Western Organization of Resource Councils, more than 234 square miles of coal-disturbed land is unreclaimed across the West with Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota accounting for the vast majority of the unreclaimed lands.

“Luckily, Wyoming has been revising its bonding rules,” Anderson said. “But, we still have a lot of work to do.” 

Contemporaneous reclamation

Coal reclamation is the recovery of mined land for use by other industries and the public, said Kyle Wendtland, a Department of Environmental Quality Land Quality Division administrator. 

As companies move their mining operations forward, they reclaim previously mined areas, which lowers the cost of reclamation, Wendtland explained.

“For surface coal mines, reclamation is concurrent with the mining, or contemporaneous,” he said. “As you expose the coal through creation of a pit and extraction of the resource, that pit advances, and then, the prior pit is backfilled.” 

After backfilling and contouring a previously mined tract of land, mining companies add top soil and seed it as the first phase of the reclamation process. By phase two, the land is often already back in use, Wendtland said.

“Typically, most of this land will go back to agricultural production of some sort,” he said. “In phase two, you’re usually seeing it used for some sort of livestock or wildlife grazing or hay production.” 

The land must be in phase two for at least 10 years before it is eligible for release in phase three, DEQ spokesperson Keith Guille said. 

“Ensuring the companies follow the reclamation procedure is our responsibility,” Guille said. “We have inspectors go out to these mines once a month to ensure they’re meeting requirements.” 

All Wyoming mines are currently in compliance with the DEQ’s reclamation standards, he added.

Bonding process

To receive a mining permit from the DEQ, a company must post a reclamation bond, a performance obligation guaranteeing the permittee will return the land to a natural state. 

“The idea is the bond itself is a financial number of what it would cost for a third party to reclaim the mine,” Guille explained. “It’s like insurance.”

The most common form of bonding is a surety bond.

“Many companies pay premiums to a surety company, which in turn says they will cover them for this much of the bond if by chance they were to walk away,” Guille said. 

In 2019, Wyoming tracked more than $2.4 billion in surety bonds for coal and non-coal reclamation, according to DEQ documents. 

Self-bonding is the second most popular bonding method in Wyoming and concerns organizations like the resource council most. 

“Self-bonding is when you have a company that has a really high credit solvency,” Wendtland said. “And, they’re saying they have sufficient assets in the company that even if they fail, they’ll pay for the reclamation.”

Wyoming tracked more than $400 million in self bonds for coal and non-coal reclamation in 2019 of which $297 million was designated specifically for coal, DEQ documents state. 

Prior to 2015, the state held more than $2 billion in self bonds for coal.

Following guidance provided by the governor’s office, Wendtland said the DEQ reviewed its bonding policies when coal mines started filing for bankruptcy.

“We took the ‘hard look’ at our rules and did a rewrite,” he said. “Gov. Mark Gordon signed that new rules package in May 2019. Right now, Wyoming is the only state that’s undergone the rigorous process of doing that.”  

Under the new rules, self bonds can be used for up to 75 percent of a company’s bond amount and are accepted based on a credit rating rather than the previous system, which used on-balance sheet ratios. 

The changes are working well, Guille said, and the DEQ is confident the state will not have to cover bankrupt companies’ reclamation costs in the future. 

“We strengthened the rules to protect the taxpayers, the state and the companies,” he explained, adding no further changes are in the works. “We believe we’re at a point that we don’t need to be changing things around anymore.”

By the numbers:

The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality reported about 184,000 acres of land in Wyoming are listed as disturbed by coal operations. 

Fixed facilities — shops, haul roads and rail spurs — account for approximately 38,000 of the overall acreage.

Active mining pits account for about 40,000 acres. 

Leaving approximately 107,000 acres in various phases of reclamation.

The DEQ reported all coal mines are in compliance with Wyoming’s reclamation requirements.

Wyoming’s Economy: Trona is Bright Spot for Wyoming Mining

in Mining/Trona/News

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Hidden from sight beneath Sweetwater County’s rolling hills, thousands of miners dig for Wyoming’s top international export — trona.

“We have four different companies mining underground beds of trona between Green River and Rock Springs,” said Travis Deti, the Wyoming Mining Association executive director. “The mines are actually quite the sight to see. It’s like a whole little city down there with machine shops, bathrooms and roads.” 

A sodium carbonate compound, trona is processed into soda ash, which is used in baking soda, glass making and cleaning products such as laundry detergent.

Wyoming is home to the largest trona deposit in the U.S., and the Sweetwater mines produce more than 17 million tons of trona annually, Deti said.

“We export about 50 percent of that right now, and I do think you’ll see the demand go up in coming years,” he added. “It’s really a bright spot for Wyoming mining right now.” 

RELATED VIDEO: Gigantic Drill in Wyoming Trona Mine

Unlike coal, trona doesn’t need to trudge through red tape before being exported.

“Coal is an energy material and has emissions, but trona doesn’t have those issues because you’re exporting it to create products, not to burn for energy,” Deti said. “There’s not a lot of politics surrounding trona and soda ash.”

Natural vs. synthetic

Soda ash produced from trona rock competes against synthetically produced soda ash to meet global demands, said David Caplan, communications director for Genesis Alkali.

“Synthetic soda ash is created with a chemical process and fills about 75 percent of the worldwide supply,” Caplan said. “Natural soda ash makes up the remaining 25 percent. But it has a lot of environmental advantages over the synthetic product.”

The process to produce soda ash from natural trona rocks requires less energy input, thus creating less greenhouse gasses, he explained.

In the U.S., soda ash is primarily used to create glass products and baking soda. In years past, North American laundry detergent companies used soda ash as a key component of dry detergents, but Caplan said consumers shifted toward liquid detergents and pods, which are created with significantly less soda ash.  

“In the U.S., we have a mature market — the average household uses 17 pounds of soda ash each year,” he said. “In developing countries trying to industrialize, you’re seeing soda ash use of less than 5 pounds per household per year. So, there’s a lot of room left for growth.” 

RELATED VIDEO: Another Gigantic Drill in Wyoming Trona Mine

Genesis Alkali’s products are shipped to Southeast Asia, Central America and South America, he said. 

“With the growing popularity of Mexican beer over the last decade, we’re seeing a lot of our international products — primarily the glass bottles — come back into the U.S.,” Caplan said. 

With a potential for a strong future in growing markets, the industry is continually evolving, developing new technology and reducing inefficiencies.

“Through technology and engineering, we’re able to improve our yields,” Caplan explained. “But one challenge we spend a lot of time researching is trying to ensure we have ample water. We use a lot of water, and we have to keep an eye on that.”

Supporting Sweetwater

Employing more than 2,000 workers, Wyoming’s trona industry plays an integral role in both the Green River and Rock Springs economies.

“Trona is the life blood of this community,” Green River Mayor Pete Rust said. “It’s the reason Green River has the second-highest median income in the state.” 

More than just jobs, the industry injects spendable income into the local economy, allowing other industries to thrive, Rust said. 

RELATED VIDEO: A Look Inside a Wyoming Trona Mine

But as the state works to diversify its energy portfolio, he said new hurdles have popped up.

“Recently, there’s been some interesting kinds of challenges with new interest in solar farms,” Rust said. “There’s some potential conflict of interests with these new developments that take up quite a bit of space.”

Deti said the energy and trona industries have to work together to ensure surface development doesn’t “sterilize” access to the minerals below. 

“I think it’s all about striking a balance,” he said.

In Rock Springs, Mayor Tim Kaumo said trona is equally critical to the city’s survival. 

“We’ve already got a black eye from the decline in coal,” Kaumo said. “If we were to ever lose trona mining, it would be extremely detrimental.”

That situation seems unlikely, however, and instead, he said the city is seeking to capitalize on the potential growth of soda ash demand.

“We’re trying to capture more of the manufacturing side so we can entice businesses to come to Sweetwater County, take advantage of the in-place infrastructure and produce products generated by the trona patch,” Kaumo said.

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