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Redmond: Rare earths extraction could bring 'tremendous amount of economic development'

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times

AZTEC — Coal mining in northwest New Mexico may be a bit more stable going into the future despite uncertainties about when the local coal-fired power plants will close.

A company based in Los Alamos hopes to receive federal funding to explore extracting rare earth elements from coal and coal ash in the San Juan Basin.

Bill Redmond, a former U.S. congressman who now works at TechSource Inc., attended the San Juan County Commission meeting virtually on Sept. 1 to ask for a letter of support as the company submits an application for a U.S. Department of Energy grant.

The County Commission unanimously approved the letter of support.

Bill Redmond

Redmond said the San Juan Basin is one region in the United States that has been identified for possible rare earth element extraction. These rare earths can be extracted from new coal mining or from coal ash.

If awarded the grant, TechSource Inc. would partner with Navajo Technical University and Naat'áanii Development Corporation on a project to extract rare earths from the coal.

“It has the potential of bringing a tremendous amount of economic development to the San Juan Basin,” Redmond said during the meeting.

He said it is a three-phase project, starting with a potential $200,000 grant from the Department of Energy. If the first phase is successful, it would be eligible for a future grant of $1.2 million. Later, in the third phase, it could receive a U.S. Department of Defense contract, Redmond said.

Bottom ash from burning coal is piled, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019, at the San Juan Generating Station in Waterflow.

“Well, Mr. Congressman, the two magic words you said were ‘economic development,’” said Commission Chairman Jack Fortner. “That certainly is a big deal for us.”

Commissioner Jim Crowley, who sits on the board of Four Corners Economic Development, said the project is one of the things 4CED is looking for to capture “low-hanging fruit.”

“The minerals have been mined,” he said. “They just need to be refined and what you’re bringing forth is an excellent idea.”

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The U.S. Geological survey says rare earth elements "are relatively abundant in the Earth’s crust, but minable concentrations are less common than for most other ores. In North America, measured and indicated resources of rare earths were estimated to include 2.7 million tons in the United States and more than 15 million tons in Canada."

Increasing domestic production of rare earth elements is seen by the some as a matter of national security, as China is a major source of some elements used in everyday modern technology from mobile phones to aircraft engines.

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"The rare earths are a relatively abundant group of 17 elements composed of scandium, yttrium, and the lanthanides," according the website usgs.com. "...The elemental forms of rare earths are iron gray to silvery lustrous metals that are typically soft, malleable, and ductile and usually reactive, especially at elevated temperatures or when finely divided. The rare earths' unique properties are used in a wide variety of applications."

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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