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RESTON, Va. — The U.S. Geological Survey has invested more than $2 million from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in cooperative agreements with 14 states to study the potential for critical mineral resources in mine waste. This funding will allow the USGS and these states to better map locations of mine waste and measure the potential for critical minerals that might exist there.

“These agreements are allowing us and the states to take a second look at places that were once known for their mineral production to see if there might yet be some new critical mineral potential, just waiting to be found,” said Darcy McPhee, program manager for the USGS Earth Mapping Resources Initiative (Earth MRI), which provided the funding for the agreements.

Image: Discarded Drill Cores from the Blackbird Cobalt-Copper Mine
Blocks of biotitic meta-sandstone from the lower part of the Gunsight Formation, and drill core from the underlying banded siltite unit of the Apple Creek Formation, lying on the dump of the lower workings of the Copper Queen mine, southeast of the Blackbird cobalt-copper mine area.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides a \$510.7 million investment to the USGS to advance scientific innovation and map critical minerals, including through USGS’s Earth Mapping Resources Initiative (MRI), a partnership between the USGS and state geological surveys to modernize our understanding of the nation’s fundamental geologic framework and improve knowledge of domestic critical mineral resources both in the ground and in mine waste. Earth MRI is investing \$74 million per year, of which \$64 million comes from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

Mining produces a lot of waste. In addition to topsoil, waste rock, and other materials that are removed to get to the ore, which is the rock that contains a potentially profitable concentration of a particular mineral commodity, the valuable minerals are generally a very small percentage of the ore that is mined. Concentrating the valuable minerals during initial processing leaves behind what are called tailings, which are frequently discarded and stored at the mine site while the valuable minerals are taken away for further processing.

Tailings Pile Sample Collection
USGS scientist Ryan Taylor collects samples from tailings piles at the Cheever Mine in Essex County, New York. 

In the past, mines in the United States have focused on metals that are reliably profitable, such as gold, silver, iron, copper, lead and zinc. However, many newer technologies such as renewable energy generation, electric vehicle batteries, and consumer electronics rely on small amounts of mineral commodities that are often rarer in the Earth’s crust and are frequently unprofitable to mine by themselves.

In some cases, these rare mineral commodities occur alongside the traditionally profitable metals. Historical mines extracted metals that were profitable at the time, but not the rare mineral commodities like cobalt and indium and other critical minerals. Because those minerals weren’t needed then, they were often left in the tailing piles.

Now, with funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the USGS and state geological surveys are taking a second look at this mine waste for critical mineral potential.

Scientist kneeling to collect samples from tin placer tailings. Yellow tube, trowel, buckets near water, dirt and rocks.
Scientist sieving a sample of tin placer tailings in Cassiterite Creek on the western Seward Peninsula.

The USGS has started by creating a national mine waste inventory that identifies where mine waste exists on the landscape. Using the USMIN database, USGS scientists have plotted the location of historic mine features, including known tailing piles, along with which minerals were produced there. Funding from these new cooperative agreements is allowing states like Arizona, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Virginia and Washington to add data from their own mine waste inventories to the national inventory.

Once the locations of mine waste are known, research is needed to determine whether critical minerals can be found in the tailings and, if so, how they might be produced and what effects producing them might have on local ecosystems and communities. Funding from these new cooperative agreements will allow states like Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Montana, New York, North Carolina and Washington to collect samples from tailing sites, create geologic maps and analyze the surrounding area to see what the potential for critical minerals in their mine waste might be.

More information on Earth MRI can be found here. To learn more about how the USGS is investing the resources from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, visit our website. To learn more about USGS mineral-resource and commodity information, please visit our website and follow us on Twitter

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