Matt Joeckel displays a core sample of carbonatite rock containing niobium and rare-earth elements, which was taken from a deposit near Elk Creek, Neb.
The small Nebraska town of Elk Creek (population 112), may not be so small much longer. Reports suggest that the southeastern Nebraska town may be sitting on the world’s largest untapped deposit of “rare earth” minerals, which have proved to be indispensable to a slew of high-tech and military applications such as laser pointers, stadium lighting, electric car batteries and sophisticated missile-guidance systems.
Canada-based Quantum Rare Earths Developments Corp. last week received preliminary results from test drilling in the area, showing “significant” proportions of “rare earth” minerals and niobium.
The only people more excited than Quantum? The residents of Elk Creek, where nearly one in seven people live under the poverty line, but whose economy has been booming ever since the company showed up late last year to start laying the groundwork for a possible mining bonanza.
“It’s been a very, very positive experience for our community,” said state Sen. Lavon Heidemann, an Elk Creek farmer. “When Quantum came in here, they put money in the local community. And any time you have money flowing in a small town, that’s a positive.”
The potential mining operation, the first in the U.S. in a decade, could have an international impact as well. U.S. officials and lawmakers in Congress have been eager to break the near monopoly on global production of the 17 rare-earth elements in China, which has shown its willingness to use its power in the market for political ends.
Quantum acquired a circular piece of land – a bit more than 4 miles in diameter – near Elk Creek late last year. The land, which the U.S. Geological Survey projects may have one of the world’s largest deposits of niobium and rare earths, has since been poked, prodded and drilled to determine whether it held any niobium, which has never been mined in the U.S., or rare earths, which the U.S. has not mined in almost 10 years.
The local buzz
Boom times based on natural-resource strikes can disrupt a community and its economy, but it’s hard to find anyone in Elk Creek bad-mouthing the potential rare-earth bonanza.
“The whole community is behind Quantum,” said Greg Krueger, a local contractor. “When the drillers showed up this spring, people just opened their arms up.”
The town of Elk Creek consists of not much more than a Lutheran church, a village tavern and a grocery store called Scotty’s, owned by a local family. Even in the exploratory phase, Quantum has brought some big changes.
“They’ve rented houses, they go to our local grocery store for their food, and straight off they signed all of their leases with local farmers, just like they promised,” Mr. Heidemann said.
Mr. Krueger added that Elk Creek residents were eager to provide any help they could, including allowing the drills to be dragged across their land free of charge.
“It was, ‘What do you need? Where do you need to stay?’ Nobody is pessimistic, as far as thinking, ‘They’re here to destroy things,’ ” Mr. Krueger said.
“Elk Creek is a very small community,” he added. “And [Quantum] has provided a lot of business.”