A project which could bring 1,000 jobs to the area is under way to utilize a once-familiar facility in the Sullivan area.
The Pea Ridge mine near Sullivan will reopen once a processing plant is complete in Crystal City.
The plant is meant to process iron, which workers at Pea Ridge mined until the facility closed in 2001.
Construction at Pea Ridge Mine is ramping up and job training will likely begin next year, owner Jim Kennedy of Wings Enterprises said earlier this year.
“In 24 months the mine will be operating and we’ll hit capacity at 30 months. On a permanent basis there will be 300 to 350 jobs on the Sullivan side. Three hundred high-paying jobs in the Sullivan community is going to be a big deal,” he told The Sullivan Journal.
The Sullivan area also will see temporary construction jobs and other jobs created by the mine reopening.
Kennedy told The Missourian that work at both sites is progressing.
“It’s slower than we’d like, but we’re seeing progress every day,” he said.
The entire project is expected to take four years. As barge and rail facilities are completed in the next several years, bulk shipment of iron ore from Crystal City will begin.
Once construction is complete, the mine and refinery will produce 4 million tons of chemical-grade iron oxide a year.
“The most they ever produced in the history of the mine was 2 million tons – not a year, but ever,” Kennedy said in March. “Now we’ll be producing twice that much every year.”
Kennedy is hoping to mine and process something else — rare earth elements, or REEs.
Kennedy discovered the estimated $3 billion worth of REEs while looking through old files left behind by previous owners.
Processing of the minerals, such as dysprosium and ytterbium, is done almost exclusively in China.
Once the new plant in Crystal City is complete, it could provide a location for the REEs to be processed too, turning them into high-tech alloys used in missile guidance systems, radars, lasers, magnets and more.
Kennedy proposed the domestic REE refinery. With the support of U.S. Sen. Kit Bond, U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan and others, the project could become a reality.
Doing so would cost about $1 billion, however.
Reviving the iron mining side of operations broke ground in March.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to celebrate getting jobs,” state Rep. Charlie Scholattach said at the ceremony.
The refinery and mine both are estimated to mean about 1,000 new jobs.
Kennedy said thousands of additional jobs could follow if the processing of REEs is added.
The jobs would come from technology companies that make materials from the REEs.
In the meantime, Crystal City will be the site of a pig iron processing plant and a bulk shipping barge/rail facility.
Concentrated ore will be transported from the Pea Ridge Mine to the Crystal City location by underground pipeline.
Rare earth deposits have been identified in California, Idaho, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming and Utah.
Pea Ridge has smaller deposits but higher concentrations of heavy REEs than perhaps anyplace else in the world.
A U.S. Government Accountability Office report in April said it could take seven to 15 years to bring a facility like a REE processing site fully online.
Kennedy and his supporters suggest a REE refinery would attract REE-dependent manufacturers and contractors to the region.
“We could become a new Silicon Valley,” Kennedy told The St. Louis Business Journal. “We would emphasize the green technology side, but the reality is there are also a lot of defense opportunities. This could present an incredible leverage position for Missouri. If we can get the right language in the legislation, this is ours to lose.”
The United States will have to play catch-up to get into the REE market, however.
The Chinese government made rare-earth mining and refining a national priority 25 years ago.
It was the source of more than 90 percent of the rare earth elements, alloys and components used by U.S. companies and contractors a decade ago, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, and 97 percent last year.
No commercial rare earths refineries exist in the Western Hemisphere.
The only two permitted rare earths mines in the United States are Pea Ridge and Mountain Pass in California state.
Both of those mines have been inactive for years.
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