Rules for rare earth exploration being made on the fly

The Yukon has yet to decide how to regulate its first rare earth element exploration project in the territory.

The Yukon has yet to decide how to regulate its first rare earth element exploration project in the territory.

“We don’t have that much experience with rare earths here,” said Bob Holmes, director of mineral resources for the Energy, Mines and Resources department. “I don’t think anybody really has much experience with them.”

Rare earth elements, some of which are toxic and radioactive, have become a hot commodity for countries seeking the strategically important rocks.

Rare earths were once used only in oil refining, but are now found in everything from cruise missiles to LCD screens.

They’re also hard to get a hold of. Over the last 20 years, China has slowly edged its way to controlling nearly all of the rare earth market.

Mining companies have reacted by opening new sites around the world, including a new mine now in development at Thor Lake in the Northwest Territories.

The True Blue property, 50 kilometres southwest of Ross River, is the Yukon’s first exploration project for rare earths. Announced in March this year, it consists of 94 contiguous claims where Great Western Minerals Groups Ltd. plans to explore for the next five years.

The Energy, Mines and Resources Department is playing its first rare earth experience by ear, hoping a report from the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board on the site’s mining licence will help clear the way.

“My sense is that there is not a great problem at the exploration stage but it’s something we’ll look at,” said Holmes.

Once the assessment board provides some guidelines, the department will use those to draw up terms and conditions for the site’s class 3 mining licence, which would allow a five-year exploration window.

“That’s where we would deal with any issues of drilling, trenching and reclamation,” said Holmes.

“If there were any special conditions around radioactive elements or something, we’d include it in there.”

The department uses a set of guidelines for radioactive mining copied from Saskatchewan. A few years ago, there was a uranium staking rush in the Wernecke Mountains and the Saskatchewan protocols were used, said Holmes.

The rule of thumb in Saskatchewan is if the quantity of uranium is bigger than one per cent in a certain chunk of a drill core, conditions should be applied, he said.

“In Saskatchewan, they were getting grades of 25 to 30 per cent uranium and we were getting 0.2 or 0.1,” he said. “So even if we included these requirements, we weren’t worried about it.”

“And in the rare earth elements here, it’s all relatively under one per cent. So it doesn’t appear to be a big issue, but we’ll look at it for sure.”

A news release from Great Western Minerals states initial samples have a 6.02 per cent total rare earth oxides and yttrium content and other samples have a 2.52 per cent niobium oxide content with a high proportion of neodymium and other heavy rare earth elements.

Yttrium is toxic. Based on animal experiments, the US Occupational Health and Safety Administration believe humans could develop lung disease from inhaling yttrium. People exposed to airborne metals containing yttrium had mild eye, skin, and upper respiratory tract irritation, says the administration’s website.

Neodymium is also mildly toxic and is usually found near uranium.

“At the minesite, there’s virtually no risks other than their association with radioactive material, like thallium or uranium,” said Jim Engdahl, the Great Western CEO, in an interview in April.

While Holmes admits that the department doesn’t know what the grades will be, it’s unlikely that neodymium will be kept in high enough concentrations to hurt humans.

“You could have a problem if you had enough ore piled up and you stood too close to it.”

Holmes echoed a statement by Engdahl that rare earths are more dangerous during production.

“I wouldn’t worry too much about it in the exploration stage,” said Holmes. “It’s more when you’re working with the refined product.”

The assessment board review, which began in April, was extended twice after requests from the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Ross River Dena Council.

The DFO has since signalled it has no major issues with the project and the Teslin Tlingit Council has also cleared the project. The Ross River Dena Council did not submit a response by Tuesday. Public comment for the project closed Wednesday.

Contact James Munson at jamesm@yukon-news.com

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