A coalition of tribes and environmental groups asked the U.S. Department of the Interior to create new, stricter hard rock mining rules and to prioritize metal and rare earth recycling over mining.
The aim is to recover materials from cast-off cell phones, computers, monitors and even consumer batteries, reducing the demand for new mining operations and the waste, pollution and other environmental impacts they leave behind.
The group made use of a little-known provision in the federal Administrative Procedure Act, which gives an “interested person” the right to petition a federal agency to issue, amend or repeal a rule.
The Clinton administration issued similar restrictions within the Interior Department in its closing days. But, the incoming Bush administration was quick to reverse the rule with just a few exceptions related to bonding and exploration notices.
The group also wrote that regulations to administer the General Mining Act of 1872’s provisions should be updated. The petition noted, for example, that the U.S. Forest Service’s mine permitting regulations have gone mostly unchanged since they were initially published in 1974.
More royalties, more tribal consultation
The group called for tougher regulations to evaluate mining permit applications as companies delve deeper into the earth, seeking ever-smaller metal-bearing ore bodies. The Environmental Protection Agency said the metal mining sector accounted for 41% of toxic substance releases and estimated that hard rock mines have contaminated about 40% of watersheds in the West.
Mines pay few or no royalties to extract the land’s mineral and metal riches. A General Accounting Office report published in May 2020 found that 83% of the 872 mines operating on federal lands in 2018 paid no royalties to the government. That’s because under the 1872 mining law, these hard rock mines, known as locatable mines, are not required to pay royalties to the feds.
The other 17% of mines are located on lands leased from the government; these mines paid about $550 million in royalties in the fiscal year 2018.
A mining claim can be made on public lands managed by both the Interior Department and the U.S. Forest Service, an Agriculture Department agency. Alli Melton, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the group asked for the rule change from the Interior Department because it is the lead agency charged with administrating the mining act.
The groups noted that a report from the Biden administration issued in June called for significant updates to mining laws and regulations.
The petition also asked the Biden administration to establish meaningful tribal consultation, to better protect Indigenous resources and to work toward free, prior and informed consent from impacted communities.
President Joe Biden issued a letter to executive branch agencies shortly after he took office directing those agencies to comply with Clinton-era executive orders to engage in meaningful consultation with tribes. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has also made increased tribal consultation a priority.
The report also said that no comprehensive statutes govern lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper, gold, uranium and other minerals, and recommended reforming the 1872 mining act and updating mining regulations on public lands.
Any rule changes will likely not occur soon. Creating a new rule or revising a previous rule can take up to 10 years, and involve research, public comment periods, hearings or even court proceedings. And any change to rules involving permits under a law or laws must follow the same formal procedures as granting or revoking a permit or license, including adjudication.
The Interior Department declined to comment regarding what might happen next, including an estimate of the timeline to evaluate the request.
“Urban mining” may reduce the need for new mines
The tribes and environmental groups also asked the administration to create or enhance policies that “prioritize metals recycling and reuse over new mining.”
The “mother lode” of materials essential to renewable energy production and storage is growing fast. The industry publication Chemical and Engineering News said that in 2020 alone, China was expected to generate about 500,000 metric tons of used lithium-ion batteries. By 2030, industry experts estimate that worldwide, 2 million tons of batteries will be discarded annually.
Experts say recycling these materials is an essential component in the growing “circular economy,” in which consumers and manufacturers recycle and reuse products and materials instead of tossing them away and extracting new raw materials. Recycling results in less waste, less pollution from extractive industries and a smaller carbon footprint, according to the United Nations’ Conference on Trade and Development.
Some recycling experts say the need for new mines could decrease with more “urban mining” — diving deep into junk drawers, closets, attics and garages in search of cast-aside cell phones, computers, monitors, video games and even consumer batteries for reclaiming hard-to-mine metals and minerals.
Several U.S.-based companies are already working to prevent lithium, gold, cobalt, palladium and other metals and rare earths from being lost to landfills.
Craig Boswell, president of HOBI International, a firm that recycles electronics and other IT equipment, said consumers can recycle leftover electronics and be reassured the hard-to-mine metals and minerals in those items won’t end up in a landfill.
“You can recycle electronics at any Best Buy store,” he said, noting that, “most of the major original equipment manufacturers have recycling programs, using vetted companies such as mine.”
If a consumer has an old device and wants to recycle it responsibly, the manufacturer will suggest local recycling centers. HOBI has a Phoenix facility that is currently moving to a larger facility.
Boswell said many cellular carriers have trade-in programs that give consumers a discount for returning their old devices.
“A cell phone is a better source of gold than mining gold ore,” said Billy Johnson, chief lobbyist of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, an industry organization. “It’s 10 times richer in gold per pound, and the economics of recycling are better.”
The U.S. is trailing other countries in adopting lithium-ion battery recycling capabilities, according to Jeffrey Spangenberger, director of the ReCell Center, a consortium of industry, university and government labs that are developing new processes to economically recycle lithium-ion batteries. The ReCell Center is also exploring evolving battery chemistries to be ahead of the recycling curve.
”Most batteries that are going to come back for recycling from electric vehicles haven’t reached the end of their life yet,” he said. Lithium-ion batteries first appeared in electric vehicles around 2012, while an electric vehicle’s life is about 12 years, Spangenberger said.
Battery recycling is sprouting across the nation as capacity is added and new techniques come on line, although Spangenberger believes many sources of metal still languish in junk drawers and closets. He thinks lithium recycling may increase over the decade because he expects car batteries to start moving to recycle centers in larger numbers over the next few years as they reach their end of life.
Spangenberger said recyclers typically produce metal salts that must be exported to make new batteries, which are then re-imported to the U.S. The ReCell Center is developing a new process called “direct cathode recycle,” in which the battery material is ready to cycle directly into a new battery.
Jaeheon Lee, associate professor of mining and geological engineering at the University of Arizona, agreed that the U.S. can do better in recycling.
“There are huge opportunities to do ‘urban mining,’” Lee said.
“Cell phones, for example, probably contain gold and neodymium (an essential element for making rare earth magnets) in quantities a couple of orders of magnitude higher than conventional mined ore,” he said.
Recycling becomes even more viable with the addition of other batteries that usually end up in landfills, like alkaline and nickel-cadmium batteries, button batteries and even lithium-ion batteries from small electric-powered devices to large electric vehicle batteries, he said.
Catalytic converters also contain precious metals like palladium, Lee said.
Recycling is also cheaper than mining fresh materials.
“With hard rock mining, we have to mine and crush the ore,” Lee said. “Sometimes the crushing accounts for more than 50% of overall operating costs.”
On the other hand, the “urban resources” are in very high concentrations and can be relatively easily separated, Lee said. “So it’s going to be much cheaper than conventional hard rock mining.”
Lee also pointed to the environmental benefits, such as avoiding the waste and toxicity of tailings.
“There was the tailings dam failure in Brazil in 2019, which killed hundreds of people,” he said. “With urban mining, we don’t need to deal with those huge amounts of tailings.”
Lee said recycling should start with city or state governments since the U.S. needs the metal.
“For example, I attended a symposium on Asian resource recycling technology where nations share their knowledge and experience about recycling not only metal but also sometimes even paper or plastic,” he said.
Both Johnson and Boswell said public awareness of recycling devices that contain lithium, cobalt, gold, copper and other metals and rare earth will help power a renewable, circular energy economy.
“We just need to get people to harvest them out of their basement,” said Johnson.
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