Nechalacho's environmental officer, Cody Drygeese, tests a water sample at the mine's settling pond. Bill Braden Photo/Cheetah Resources
Scientists have begun a three-year project at the Nechalacho mine, Canada’s first producer of rare earth elements, to better understand the elements’ potential effects on the aquatic environment.
Ultimately, the researchers aim to provide regulators with the information they need to set thresholds for rare earth elements in aquatic systems.
Rare earth elements are a group of 17 elements, and they play a critical role in the transition to a green economy.
“They all have funny names, but they also have unique properties that are really useful in some technologies,” said Jim McGeer, a biology professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, who is leading the ongoing study.
About 80 percent of rare earths are used to make strong magnets, said David Connelly, vice president of strategy and corporate affairs at Cheetah Resources, the company that owns Nechalacho. “The strong magnets enable a number of technologies,” he said, from electric vehicle motors and wind turbine generators to energy-efficient light bulbs and screens.
The bulk of rare earth elements comes from China, as the CBC previously reported. With demand for these minerals projected to increase, Canada is exploring its options for domestic production. Operations at Nechalacho, located 110 kilometres southeast of Yellowknife, began last summer.
Although rare earth elements have been identified as important to the future economy, “we also don’t have a lot of information on their potential for environmental effects,” according to McGeer.
There isn’t any clear evidence that rare earths are of special concern, McGeer said, but too much of anything can be toxic. Mining activities can increase levels of rare earths naturally found in water, and it’s still unclear how much is too much, he said. Few studies have looked at the elements’ environmental effects, and so far, most of them have been conducted in labs.
“It’s really just a lack of information, which is the concern,” he said.
At Nechalacho, McGeer and his colleagues are working to fill this gap. A visit to the mine site kicked off the project in August, and over the next three years, the team plans to study the site’s environment and how various environmental factors — such water hardness and pH — affect rare earths’ potential to affect aquatic organisms. The results of the research will help the Cheetah Resources and regulators set water treatment levels.
“The study will focus on ground and melt water which collects in the North T excavation pit. That water is pumped into a lined settling pond and analyzed before any release into the natural environment,” explained a news release.
Since rare earth elements often occur as mixtures, the scientists also plan to assess the elements’ cumulative effects, which may be stronger or weaker than their individual effects added up, McGeer said.
According to Connelly, Nechalacho offers scientists a unique opportunity as the first producing rare earth mine in Canada. “We’re the only outdoor lab,” he said.
The company welcomes the research, Connelly said. “We are committed to being a responsibly-sourced supplier of rare earth product, and this will help everyone build confidence that the environment is being protected,” he said in a news release earlier this month.