Old Mine Tailings: New Mother Lode For Rare Elements

As regards old tailings, where do the best pickings lie? How about Virginia City, Nev., (home to what once was the Comstock Lode, richest silver deposit in history, which by one estimate produced $4.5 billion) or Bisbee, Ariz., former copper boomtown? Koenig says he has analyzed a promising sample from Sparks, Nev., (not far from Virginia City) and from Bisbee, too.

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But it's too early in the process, he says, to specify where the best pickings will be found. "We're really not ready to discuss specifics, one place over another," he demurs. His group will release a preliminary report by the end of the year, he tells ABC News.

How long it might take the U.S. to become self-sufficient in rare earth elements? That depends, say experts, on the U.S.'s national will and on several bills now pending in Congress--three in the House, one in the Senate--that would expedite U.S. production of these elements. Under current laws and regulations, says Meinert, the average time required to get a new mine permitted (or to rework an old one) tops 10 years. If there's any public misconception about the U.S.'s ability to solve its rare earth problem, he says, it's the belief that "Oh, wow, we can do this tomorrow."

Is anybody running around the old west right now, buying up rights to abandoned tailings? No, say experts. Not yet.

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