Mineral Resources Essential to National
Security and the Green Economy Under Siege
An environmental group, Trout Unlimited, is leading a
campaign to create a National Conservation Area to promote sportsmen’s values
in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado
at the expense of national security and the green economy. Specifically, their
goal is to prohibit mining in The Alpine Triangle, as they are calling the
targeted area, just as the U.S.
is reaching a crisis of access to the strategic minerals the Area contains.
The Alpine Triangle is defined by the communities of Lake City,
Silverton, and Ouray, and is one of the most heavily mineralized places in the
world, rich in minerals such as tungsten, rare earths, indium, molybdenum,
antimony, tellurium, cadmium, manganese, bismuth, gold, silver, zinc, lead, and
The crisis of access is caused by the fact that the western
industrialized world, including the U.S.,
has become heavily dependent on China
for a wide array of strategic metals, and China is cutting back its exports.
For example in August 2010, China
announced they were going to cut back their export of rare earths by 72%. And
in September 2010, they blocked their rare earth exports to Japan due to an
otherwise unrelated diplomatic dispute. In other words, now is not the time to
close off access to domestic reserves of resources essential to national
defense and the green economy.
What Is The Purpose
of Trout Unlimited’s Alpine Triangle Campaign?
As stated in a video on The Alpine Triangle Campaign on the
Trout Unlimited web site,
“The Alpine Triangle is… one of the most unique sporting and
recreational resources in Colorado, most notably because of the access – the
dirt road and four wheel drive access – into this area… Probably the biggest
threat to this area would be the mining industry and the threat that new or
additional mines could have on the water quality of these trout rivers. What
we’re trying to protect here are sportsmen’s values…”
How Did The U.S. Become Dependent On China?
During the period of 1980 to 2010, the western
industrialized world became heavily dependent on a wide range of strategic
metals supplied by China.
This happened because China
priced their exports cheaply until strategic metals production capacity in the U.S. and
elsewhere was destroyed.
Rare earth minerals in the U.S.
are a perfect example of this: First, China supplied refined rare earths cheaply
to the world. Then the Mountain Pass Rare Earth Mine in California
shut down in the 1990s, and subsequently China
attempted to purchase the Mountain
Pass ore body through a
takeover of Unocal Corp. in 2005. Now, the world is almost totally dependent
for refined rare earth supplies.
Why Is The U.S. In
Continuing with the rare earth example, China currently
supplies about 97% of the world’s refined rare earths, and in August 2010, the
Country announced it would cut back its rare earth export quotas by 72%. Further,
in September 2010, China
started to use the leverage their position affords as a political club.
Specifically, they blocked shipments of rare earths to Japan in light of a dispute between the two
countries over Japan’s
detention of a Chinese fishing trawler captain.
Now, the western world has to scramble to re-instate rare earth
mine capacity to meet western industrial needs, and in the U.S. it takes many years to put a
mine into production, regardless of whether it involves reopening an existing
mine or opening up a brand new one. In the meantime, the security of the U.S.
is at risk.
The same scenario of Chinese cutbacks in their exports of
tungsten, antimony, bismuth, indium and other strategic metals is also playing
out. Not only are these metals strategic to the United States. today, but it is
also apparent that new, expanded uses will be developed in the next few
years. Just as the crucial strategic
importance of the heavy rare earths could not be foretold thirty years ago, the
new uses for indium, tungsten, bismuth and other strategic metals cannot be known
at this time. It would be foolhardy to
close off the one geographic area of the United States where these are so
heavily concentrated in mineral deposits.
What Do We Know About
Historic Production From Area Mines?
The mines in the Alpine Triangle have a long history of
supplying strategic metals to U.S.
industry, particularly in times of war. For example, during World War II the
base metal and strategic metal production from the area was so important to the
war effort that all males from San
were exempted from the military draft. In addition, the strategic metal
production from the western San Juan Mountains during World War I, World War II,
and the Korean War included tungsten, bismuth, antimony, manganese, cadmium,
gold, silver, zinc, lead, and copper.
While no records were kept of the aggregate strategic metals
production from the Area, records do exist for the production of select base
metals over the last 120 years. The western San Juan
Mountains have produced:
8.4 million troy ounces of gold
worth $11 billion.
175 million troy ounces of silver
worth $3.8 billion
654,000 tons of zinc worth $1.26
905,000 tons of lead worth $1.72
153,000 tons of copper worth $1.06
(source: Paul J. Bartos, October,
1993 Society of Economic Geologists Newsletter)
What Do We Know About
Existing Reserves In The Area?
The following metals are found in the San
Juan Mountains, and their strategic importance is described. This is
not a comprehensive list of the strategic metals to be found, but it is a list
of some of the primary ones.
TUNGSTEN: Tungsten is
used in the production of machine tool parts, wear resistant materials, armor,
welding, super alloys and electronics. The U.S. Geological Survey reported that
only one tungsten mine in the entire United States operated in 2009.
Almost the entirety of U.S.
tungsten requirements are imported, with China supplying 43%, and other
countries supplying the balance. The U.S. Bureau of Mines produced Information
Circular 7731 “Tungsten Potential in the San Juan Area, Ouray, San
Juan and San Miguel
in 1956. The Bureau of Mines examined
fifty tungsten mines in the western San Juan Mountains,
documenting ore grades of up to 30%-40% tungsten oxide. Such ore grades are
unheard of elsewhere in the world. The tungsten
output from this area was of vital importance in World War I and World War
II. The author believes that a large
disseminated tungsten ore body exists in San Juan
County that could supply a large part
tungsten needs. Parts of this ore body lie on federal lands, and its
exploitation would be precluded by the creation of the Alpine Triangle National
Rare earths are used in many “green,” high tech and military applications. The western world is just waking up to the
fact that they are almost exclusively dependent on China for the rare earths they need
for the highest growth areas of their economies and for many military purposes.
The fact that China is now
implementing a large reduction in its rare earth export quotas has sent alarm
bells ringing from Tokyo to Washington
The western world has been caught flat-footed in a rare earth supply crunch.
In the western San Juan Mountains,
these elements, particularly the heavy rare earth elements, are known to exist
throughout local volcanic tuffs and other rocks. Ironically, the incidence of
rare earths in this area is known largely through petrological and
environmental studies. In addition, high concentrations of rare earths are
known to exist in the Fish Canyon Tuff member which covers 5,000 square
kilometers. The U.S. Geological Survey has also published work on the rare earth
contents of acid springs in San Juan County through its environmental studies (http://toxics.usgs.gov/pubs/wri99-4018/Volume1/sectionA/1211_Verplanck/pdf/1211_Verplanck.pdf),
and the author has encountered heavy rare earth mineralization in
spectrographic analyses from samples from his mineral exploration sampling in San
Juan County. Many areas of the United States
have never been thoroughly explored for rare earth production potential,
including the western San Juan Mountains.
However, it is critically important that an exploration program for rare earths
in the Alpine Triangle precede any official move to make the area a National
INDIUM: Indium is
essential to LCD screen technologies and to photovoltaic cell production (copper-gallium-indium-selenide).
In fact, without indium, LCD screens and solar cells can not be produced. The U.S. imports 100% of the indium it consumes today,
and a large percent of the indium it consumes comes from China. Typical
indium grades associated with zinc ores are approximately 15 to 50 parts per
million. The U.S. Geological Survey
(Professional Paper 535) has documented indium ore grades in San Juan County up
to 1% indium (10,000 parts per million, which is the highest indium grade the
author has ever heard of in the world). The western San Juan Mountains
represent a huge indium resource for the United States, and preserving the
ability to mine indium from this area will be critical in the coming decades.
Molybdenum is used in steel and super alloy production. The U.S.
is currently fortunate to have substantial molybdenum production; however, no
real substitutes exist for this metal. The western San
Juan Mountains have three known molybdenum porphyry deposits
within the confines of the proposed National Conservation Area. Even larger,
higher grade molybdenum porphyry deposits are thought to exist elsewhere in San Juan and Hinsdale
Counties. Closing these areas off to future production
will be counter to the interests of the United States.
MANGANESE: Manganese is used in ferroalloy production and
fertilizers. The U.S. does
not currently produce manganese ore and is heavily dependent on manganese
imports from Africa. The U.S.
experienced a “Manganese Crisis” during World War II and the Korean War, and
the U.S. Bureau of Mines consequently spent a large sum defining a 25 million
ton manganese ore body in San Juan County, together with plans to erect a manganese
smelter at Eureka in San Juan County
in the 1950s.
BISMUTH: The U.S.
ceased primary production of bismuth in 1997, and is thus dependent on
supplies about 26% of U.S.
imports. Bismuth is used in
pharmaceuticals and fire sprinkler systems.
The lead and zinc ores of the western San Juan Mountains are known to
routinely carry significant levels of bismuth.
In fact, The Gold King Mine in San Juan County
originally operated as a bismuth mine. Significant bismuth occurs with silver
throughout San Juan
County. As such, the
western San Juan Mountains represent a large part of the bismuth production
potential of the United
ANTIMONY: No antimony was mined in the U.S. in 2009, and China
supplies 67% of the needs of the U.S. Antimony is used in battery production, flame
retardants, and paints. Antimony occurs throughout the western San Juan Mountains as a constituent of lead and zinc ores
and tetrahedrite deposits are known in the area. The western San Juan
Mountains produced a significant amount of antimony in World War
TELLURIUM: Tellurium has specialized uses in high tech
supplies 43% of the U.S.
imports of tellurium. It is thought that
the unique properties of tellurium will have expanded high tech and green
energy applications in the future. The western
San Juan Mountain Range is one of the few potential primary sources of tellurium
in the U.S.
due to the presence of gold tellurides at the Gold King and other mines. Efforts are being made to re-open the Gold
King mine for gold production at the present time.
CADMIUM: Cadmium is recovered as a byproduct from zinc ore
production. The zinc ores of the San Juan Mountains carry significant cadmium contents,
and would serve as a domestic resource if new high tech applications (such as
photovoltaics) are found for cadmium.
GOLD: Gold is
perhaps the most strategic metal of them all, when you consider that gold
underpinned the world economic system for millennia. Gold’s role as a monetary metal is again
becoming very obvious in the fall of 2010, as a currency and trade war is starting. The western San Juan Mountains represents one
best means of rapidly increasing gold production by placing older, known mines
back into production. The fact that two
milling facilities exist to allow rapid processing of newly mined gold ores may
be critical to the U.S.
in the next several years. The attempt by Trout Unlimited to remove the ability
of gold and other mining to take place in the Alpine Triangle will only be to
the benefit of America’s
economic rivals. Gold will be perhaps the most strategic metal over the next
SILVER: Both gold and
silver are critical to the manufacture of electronics. The ability to mine silver
in the San Juan Mountains also produces the
byproduct strategic metals listed above. The silver production capacity of the
Alpine Triangle will bolster the U.S. monetarily in future years, and
increase domestic sources of silver for electronic manufacturing.
COULD THE CURRENT CRISIS
BE THE RESULT OF A SLOW AND CUNNING CHINESE ATTACK ON THE WEST THAT’S BEEN BRILLIANTLY
The author of this paper, a graduate with honors in
economics from Harvard and 28 years experience in the metals trading and mining
industry, believes that starting in 1980 the Chinese Government pursued a clear
policy of making western nations dependent on cheap Chinese strategic metals
exports in order to force the closure of western world mining capacity. The
author also believes this policy was enhanced by a complementary policy of
providing funding to U.S.
environmental groups to press for mandated closures of metal mining areas and
to cripple future domestic metals production. He believes this funding was (and
is) routed circuitously to environmental groups with the sole requirement that
it go to agitation for the prohibition of mining in strategic areas. He also
believes that most of the people engaged in the pursuit of this objective are
dedicated and sincere environmentalists who are unaware of the dangerous game
It would be insane for the U.S.
to prohibit mining in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado. Yet, that would be the result of
creating a National Conservation Area, a National Monument, or a National Park in
The mineral output of the area met large national emergency
needs in World War I, World War II and the Korean War, and the area is still
one of the most heavily mineralized places on earth. This mineralization contains
large occurrences of relatively rare strategic metals essential to U.S.
defense and economic growth. The United States
is very vulnerable to China’s
moves today and tomorrow to restrict metal exports, and it is critical that
the resources in the western San Juan Mountains remain available to meet U.S.
domestic needs. If the area is “shut off” by designation as a National Conservation
Area and the U.S. enters
an armed conflict with China
over Taiwan, the South
China Sea, or some other reason, the men and women in the U.S. armed forces will pay the ultimate
price. The western San Juan Mountains must remain open to mineral production
for both national defense and economic growth reasons. Anything less is a
betrayal of our Country and its future.