Texas is known for its oil rigs, not its rock mineral mines.
But that could change if the search for rare earth minerals in a mountain 85 miles east of El Paso turns to mining.
It would mean hundreds of jobs to the region and new glory days for the small town of Sierra Blanca.
Used in everything from missiles to iPods, rare earth minerals are regarded as strategic by the U.S. government and vital to the world’s electronics market.
They are what make Stealth fighters stealthy and LED lights shine.
But there are two big problems: China controls the market and, until very recently, there were no working rare-earth mines in the United States.
Now there’s one, the reopened Mountain Pass Mine in California, which plans to go into full operation by April. It closed in 2003 because of the low cost of rare earth metals coming from China. Otherwise, the closest working mines are in Canada.
But now there’s a rush to find rare-earth deposits worth mining that are closer, warmer and American.
Say, Round Top Mountain in Hudspeth County.
Located just off Interstate 10, about six miles west of the town of Sierra Blanca, it’s not far from Sierra Blanca Mountain, a conspicuous, 4,600-foot peak that anyone who drives that curvy stretch of road in daytime would notice.
Round Top is made of a crumbly rock known as rhyolite that can bear an array of rare earth minerals. And Round Top’s rhyolite is pretty special.
Rare earth minerals aren’t really rare on earth, but they are hard to find in deposits that are rich enough and big enough to mine.
“This is a low-grade occurrence, but it has massive potential,” said Marc Levier, 62, a metallurgist and the CEO of Texas Rare Earth Resources Corp., or TRER. “It appears that the entire mountain is uniformly mineralized, and if that’s true, this is huge.”
In addition to the rare composition of Round Top’s strange rhyolite, Levier said, “it’s a unique setting, close to the interstate, a good year-round climate and a railroad spur right there.”
By comparison, the Canadian rare earth mines are north of the Arctic Circle. Workers fly in and out for 30-day shifts. Logistics are always a problem.
TRER staked a 10,000-acre prospecting claim on the state-owned land with the Texas General Land Office, or GLO, in 2007.
Based on its findings, TRER took out a 20-year, renewable lease on 860 acres around and including Round Top in 2010.
Last May, the GLO permitted TRER to begin exploration and drilling on Round Top. Since then, the company has bored hundreds of holes deep into the mountain to map the deposits and determine if it is rich enough and big enough to start mining.
“We want them to move to mining because that’s when we make money on it,” GLO spokesman Jim Sudnam said. The royalties would go to the Permanent School Fund to support public schools in Texas.
The rhyolite, which is 300 feet deep in some places and more than 1,000 in others, is unusual because it holds more of the much-sought heavy rare earth mineral oxides that produce some of the strangest metals known to man.
Their 10 names are hardly household words, such as europium used in TV screens to create the color red, and silvery white gadolinium found in compact discs and nuclear propulsion systems.
If the assay results continue to shine, the market holds up and investors bring the money, Levier said, Round Top should be in operation by late 2015.
TRER’s stock is selling for a little over $1 on the over-the-counter market.
“Processing 60,000 tons a day roughly, with good market conditions you’d have a very sustainable operation, and that’s really what the United States needs,” Levier said. “It would establish a supply line for over 60 years at those rates.
“Based on what we know today, there’s one billion tons of material. That was an estimate by the geologist from the state’s Bureau of Economic Geology.”
El Paso Inc. verified the claim.
UTEP geology professor Phillip Goodell is a rock veteran who has been at the school since 1975 and seen all kinds of precious metal adventures come and go – some of them to prison.
He thinks Round Top Mountain is the real deal and has had 10 of his students working there.
“These guys are not phony,” Goodell said. “There is a mountain and other people have found what’s there. Whether they can make it economically, well, that’s what’s being tested.”
Goodell said he had a master’s student in 1986 who did a study of the Sierra Blanca and neighboring Quitman Mountains and found that they are rare earth enriched.
When the University of Texas at Austin challenged the findings, Goodell said he had the assays confirmed by the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The Sierra Blanca Mountains are also home to uranium deposits and other rare minerals, such as beryllium.
Now that the Chinese control the market, Goodell said, they’ve cut exports each year, in part to force the manufacturers that need those metals to set up plants in China.
But the resulting shortages have forced up rare earth prices, so the race is on to find new sources for new and fast-growing markets.
“It is feverish,” Goodell said. “We’re going to have to gain independence from China, kind of like the U.S. is gaining independence in oil from Saudi Arabia.
“There’s probably over 100 companies looking for rare earth elements. Most of them don’t have anything near as good as TRER.”
Goodell said another rare-earth hunt is underway just across the New Mexico line from Dell City in the Otero Mesa’s Cornudas Mountains. That operation is being closely watched by environmental organizations that have been trying to keep natural gas exploration and other such ventures away from the mesa.
The groups are concerned about the damage a mining operation could to Otero’s pristine plains and to the particular site of today’s exploration – Wind Mountain, a holy place to two Indian tribes.
TRER would not have to file a federal environmental impact statement to mine on state land, but Levier said the company will move cautiously and comply with state environmental regulations.
“This is a billion-dollar project, and anything we do in that area is gong to make an impact,” he said. “We have to be very thoughtful and very proactive in our planning in collaboration with the different agencies and entities out there.”
Jobs, jobs, jobs
Levier said a mining operation would offer many opportunities for Hudspeth County residents as well as job seekers from El Paso and elsewhere.
“We’ll have to bring in all sorts of mining engineers, metallurgists, chemical engineers and people like that,” Levier said. “The full operation would employ somewhere in the neighborhood of 250 to 300 people.
“And during construction, you’ll probably see somewhere between 1,200 and 1,500 people out there working on a daily basis, let alone all the vendors and people who will be bringing in supplies and materials.”
That would have a huge impact on Hudspeth County, which covers 5,000 square miles and has a population of only about 3,500.
For the unincorporated town of Sierra Blanca, which has seen its population decline to about 400, a going mine six miles away would be a boon like nothing it’s seen since the arrival of the railroad 130 years ago.
Sierra Blanca was established in 1881, seven miles from the spot where the famous silver spike joined the tracks of the westbound Texas and Pacific Railway and the eastbound Southern Pacific Railway.
Transcontinental rail service began the next day.
“I know there’s a prospect for jobs; they’ve already hired quite a few people for their exploration,” said Hudspeth County Judge Becky Dean-Walker.
“For a place like Sierra Blanca, if you have five jobs, that’s a lot.”
E-mail El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.