June 15, 2022

“Everything old is new again” is a truism in fashion, but it can also be true in minerals science. Areas that were once mined for certain mineral commodities are receiving new attention as society’s appetite for energy and electronics grows and changes.

One such area is the Blackbird district of Idaho. Once home to one of the largest copper and cobalt mines in the country, mining ceased in the 1960s, and the area has remained quiet for years. However, attention has been growing recently due to the Blackbird district’s potential for new critical mineral commodities, like bismuth and the rare earth elements. In addition, advances in mining technology and refining capabilities have made cobalt resources that were once thought uneconomic potentially profitable.

Bismuth, Cobalt and the rare earth elements have all been listed as critical to the economy and security of the United States. Bismuth is used in medical and atomic research; cobalt is used in rechargeable batteries and superalloys; and the rare earth elements are used in a variety of contexts, from batteries to smartphones to defense applications to renewable energy.

One advantage of the fact that the Blackbird district had been extensively mined is that the leftover waste products might, themselves, contain some of those new critical mineral resources. In processing the leftovers, called tailings, less new mining would be required, lowering costs and reducing potential environmental impacts. The USGS did a similar study of rare earth element potential in mine tailings in Adirondacks iron mines in New York.

Still, the first step in studying an area for its mineral potential remains the traditional geologic map. Even an area extensively explored can benefit from a modern geologic map, and the Idaho Geological Survey and the USGS have jointly published just such a map for the Blackbird district. This map will serve as the foundation for future research on the critical mineral potential for region, as well as provide data on geologic hazard potential (such as earthquakes or landslides) and supply useful information for infrastructure development (road placement, building placement, etc).

This map was produced in part using funds from the USGS Earth Mapping Resources Initiative (Earth MRI), which enables the USGS, the state geological surveys, other federal, state, Tribal and private-sector organizations to modernize the Nation’s surface and subsurface mapping. Since 2019, Earth MRI has funded data acquisition and mapping in dozens of states. In 2021, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law appropriated \$320 million to expand Earth MRI, adding \$64 million per year for 5 years.