Rare earth mining project at Round Top near Sierra Blanca could have significant implications for entire Big Bend region

A map of U.S. rare earth deposits under study by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Earth Mapping Resource Initiative project shows parts of Presidio, Brewster, Jeff Davis, Culberson, Hudspeth and El Paso counties contain higher concentrations of rare earth deposits. Image by the USGS Earth Mapping Resource Initiative.

FAR WEST TEXAS — Round Top Mountain, located about eight miles northwest of the town of Sierra Blanca in Hudspeth County, could be the site of one of the few rare earth mining operations in the United States as early as 2023. 

Rare earth minerals are primarily mined in China and are used to make magnets which power everything from electronics like cell phones and computers to large-scale/rechargeable batteries like the ones used in electric vehicles, wind turbines and military weapons. Battery grade lithium, gallium, zirconium, hafnium and beryllium are among the valuable minerals present at Round Top that will be mined. Of the 17 rare earth minerals, 16 have been found at the Round Top site, as well as other high-value tech minerals. 

Contrary to the name, rare-earth elements, or REEs, are metallic elements that exist in abundance in Earth’s crust. However, at Round Top Mountain, REEs have been found in higher concentrations, which makes it more economically viable to extract the minerals and why the site was chosen for development of a rare earth mineral mine by company USA Rare Earth. 

According to recent mapping projects by the U.S. Geological Survey, parts of El Paso, Hudspeth, Culberson, Jeff Davis, Presidio and Brewster counties contain significant levels of rare earth deposits. The rare earth mining process is known to produce radioactive and toxic waste byproducts, raising health and environmental concerns around what a project of this scale could mean for the Big Bend region. REEs have been found in at least 19 states and a number of other mining projects are underway in Texas and other states.

Proponents of the mine say it will bring increased employment to the area, and royalties collected from the General Land Office (GLO), which is leasing land and mineral rights to USA Rare Earth, would funnel into the public education system, therefore benefitting the entire state.

“The Round Top project is expected to be a boon for the local and state economy, yielding 130 to 195 direct full-time permanent jobs in Texas and adding about $26 million each year to the state’s public education system,” said a press release from Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar’s office. 

In late October, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, right, visited with USA Rare Earth’s senior geologist, Tim Palmer, left, about plans for the company’s Round Top rare earth mining project near Sierra Blanca in Hudspeth County. Photo courtesy of the office of Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts.

In the recent past, there has been a significant push from the U.S. government to start the production of American-made magnets to alleviate U.S. dependence on these resources from China and meet growing demands from the auto and renewable energy industries. In an effort to secure the supply chain and kickstart domestic operations, President Donald Trump signed Executive Order 13817 in December 2017 which directed the Department of Commerce to offer strategies on a number of rare earth-related issues including lowering dependence, investing in recycling and improving permitting and mapping processes. The coronavirus economic relief bill, which passed at the end of 2020, also invested $800 million in domestic rare earth mining and processing. The Biden administration has also supported these goals by prioritizing strengthening U.S. supply chains. 

“Rare earths provide essential components for everything from electric vehicles to wind turbines to everyday electronics. USA Rare Earth was created to deliver these materials in a way that bolsters Texas’ clean energy industry and environment, and that fortifies our national security and West Texas economy,” said Thayer Smith, president of USA Rare Earth.

But the town of Sierra Blanca has a history of power struggles with the state, having hosted a New York City sludge dump for years and staving off government-backed attempts to create a radioactive waste dumpsite in the area. Bill Addington, a ranch and farm owner in Sierra Blanca, a cofounder of Sierra Blanca Legal Defense Fund Inc. and an environmental activist who helped stop a radioactive waste dumpsite from being built in the area in the 1990s opposes the Round Top project. Addington worked at a beryllium mine in Sierra Blanca in the 1980s and is concerned how the rare earth mine could affect the health of the community, he said.  

“It’s something for the region to be concerned about, not just Sierra Blanca. It has the potential to contaminate a wide area through the wind. It sets a precedent for more of this stuff to come into our region,” said Addington. “An attack on any part of the Big Bend is an attack on all of the Big Bend.” 

The preliminary designs of the mine consist of an open pit mine, multiple heap leaching pits and a plant on site. The proximity of the town of Sierra Blanca to the mine is of concern, said Addington. The population of Sierra Blanca is 764, according to the Census Bureau’s 2019 estimate. Addington was not aware of any outreach efforts from USA Rare Earth to the community to date. 

“Once again Sierra Blanca is an environmental justice case and we’ll be claiming environmental racism because we’re too poor and there’s not enough of us to fight back,” said Addington. “No one’s come to talk to us, nobody in this town, and we’re the closest community.” 

USA Rare Earth owns an 80 percent equity interest in the Round Top Mountain deposit with Texas Mineral Resources Corporation owning the remaining 20 percent. It has been announced in previous press releases the company could begin mining as early as 2023. The project is expected to yield more than 300,000 tons of rare earth oxides and meet 17 percent of projected U.S. demand for rare earth minerals with $140 million in annual sales, according to USA Rare Earth. The mining operation has been in the works for years, but has reportedly gained traction over the past few months, completing baseline environmental studies and the first phase of its stormwater management plan, among other findings.

“USA Rare Earth is jumpstarting the rare earths industry and providing a vital supply of materials for a range of fast-growing Texas manufacturers, including employers in the electric vehicle, defense and electronic sectors. Their project here will add to our state’s business-friendly climate — which includes low taxes, low regulation and low-cost electricity — by ensuring that vital materials can reach Texas manufacturers more efficiently and reliably,” said Texas Comptroller for Public Accounts Glen Hegar after a visit to the Round Top site in October.

The GLO has leased a total of 950 acres to Texas Mineral Resource Corporation in two 19-year mining lease agreements. Within those 950 acres, the operation owns all rights to surface and subsurface resources. TMRC also purchased surface rights on an additional 55,000 acres of land around the mining lease from the GLO for other facilities including leach pits and an on-site plant. TMRC has acquired an additional 1,300 acres of land from private landowners in the area. The site benefits from railroad access from previous development when the site was a New York City sludge dump owned by Merco Joint Venture in the 1990s.

“TMRC is in the process of developing a plan to acquire more private landowners’ surface rights that may be required for the development of the project, and believes it is a reasonable expectation that it will be able to acquire such surface rights prior to the completion of a feasibility study,” the company’s Preliminary Economic Assessment (PEA) document states.

In exchange for leasing the land, the GLO will receive a 6.25 percent royalty on the market value of all minerals. The exact percentage is subject to change. Those royalties make up the $26 million a year toward Texas public education, a number produced by USA Rare Earth.

While the final design of the mine and accompanying facilities has yet to be publicized, an initial map in the PEA document shows the site for the proposed open pit mine will be on the very tip of Round Top Mountain, essentially excavating into the mountain from the top down and leveling it.

“The initial 20-year pit was designed to keep all the mining to the northwest portion of Round Top Mountain. It was decided to mine this area first due to the highest drilling density in this area and in order to minimize the visual impact of the mining from the Interstate. Additionally, all the crushing and leaching facilities will be located north of Round top so this will minimize haul distances early in the life of the mine,” said the PEA report. 

In an effort to align with green initiatives, the Round Top operations will be fully powered by an onsite solar plant and more than 80 percent of the site’s revenue will be from materials used in clean, green applications, USA Rare Earths said in a statement. The Texas Comptroller’s site also alluded to the use of a “proprietary process to reduce the environmental impacts,” at Round Top, although it is not clear what that process is at this time. USA Rare Earth also owns a rare earth processing facility in Colorado and a neodymium magnet plant in North Carolina.

“We believe the Round Top project will jumpstart the domestic rare earths industry and support a range of fast-growing Texas manufacturers. We also believe it will strengthen and catalyze Texas’ base in clean energy and electric vehicles. We plan to power our operations with minimal greenhouse gas emissions and to extract minerals in a safe, environmentally sensitive way — using a contained closed-loop process with minimal infrastructure requirements,” said Smith, president of USA Rare Earth in a statement. 

In order for the site to be fully operational, a number of permits from the Texas Center for Environmental Quality will need to be obtained. In a Preliminary Economic Assessment released in 2019 by USA Rare Earth, it states a total of 12 permits will likely need to be acquired. Among the number of air, water, waste and operations permits is a radioactive material license, hazardous waste, explosives, water rights and petroleum storage permits. To date, the only permit the TCEQ has granted the project is a Construction Storm Water General Permit which, in addition to the New Source Review Permit To Construct, must be obtained before beginning construction.

The act of mining and processing rare earths is complex and costly, with significant environmental impacts. In China, which mines over 70 percent of the world’s rare earths, rare earth mining has taken a toll on mine workers and the environment. More relaxed laws have led to devastating pollution and dangerous levels of exposure for mine workers, who have suffered from health complications. 

In addition to air quality concerns, Addington, as an area landowner, said he would like to know more about the potential effects on surface and groundwater, and whether or not the regional water planning group has discussed the impacts of the developing rare earth mine. Randy Barker, Manager of the Hudspeth County Underground Water Conservation District No. 1, said he was not informed about the rare earth mineral mine at this time. 

Having fought similar efforts in the past, Addington raised questions about whether or not he could continue to even live in the area if the mine comes to fruition. “I’m third generation. I’ve got deep roots here. My grandfather’s sweat and blood is in this land. It would be very hard for me, it would be like pulling up a tree from its roots, it would damage me to do that, but I’ll leave,” said Addington. 

Addington scrutinized whether or not the state of Texas will continue to allocate state-owned land for ventures similar to the Round Top rare earth mine with little input from the local citizens. 

“Austin doesn’t care about us. They consider us somewhere to be used as a dumping ground. West Texas better wake up to that because it’s not going to stop here. It’s going to Marfa, Fort Davison and Alpine,” said Addington. “Hudspeth County has been like a feeding frenzy over here for years, and we’re sick of it.” 

Wen Song, assistant professor in the petroleum and geosystem engineering department at The University of Texas at Austin, focuses her research on the recovery of resources, and recently, rare earth minerals. Song says while the U.S. may have stricter environmental laws than some other countries, because these operations are so new, ensuring the REE mines are not doing more harm than good will be an undertaking. 

“A big part of the reason why the U.S. hasn’t had rare earth recovery and processing is because it’s a very environmentally stressful process,” said Song. “That’s why over the last 20 to 30 years it’s really been dominated by China. One really important challenge is how do we do this in a way that’s environmentally benign?” 

Song said from an engineering perspective it will be interesting to see how the rare earth minerals will be extracted from the rock they are embedded in. Understanding the specific type of rocks, the ways rare earths are bound to them and what the right chemistry is for removing them are key questions going forward, Song said. 

Song points out that the rare earths are hosted in rhyolite at Round Top, which is a porous rock. The qualities of the rock, like hardness level or connectivity of holes, determines extraction methods and difficulty level, said Song. The porous nature of the rhyolite is beneficial for heap leaching, allowing for a higher surface area to volume ratio, she says. 

“That allows fluids to potentially flow through, so when we want to extract these minerals, a lot of the time we’ll use acids and things like that, so obviously, those are fluids. So that’s good in terms of being able to actually access the minerals that host the rare earths,” Song said.

Most recently, USA Rare Earth reports leach testing of surface samples confirmed a rare earth recovery of 85 percent or more. USA Rare Earth is now primarily focusing on a Preliminary Feasibility Study and will continue to explore additional financing with its advisors, Goldman Sachs and Bank of Montreal. The Big Bend Sentinel will continue to follow the Round Top rare earth mineral mine project as updates occur.