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Interest expressed in area uranium mining

State officials are working to draft policies after interest has been expressed in mining uranium and other elements in southwest North Dakota, a practice that hasn't been conducted since the late 70s.

Lynn Helms, state Department of Mineral Resources director, said during an October meeting that companies are refocusing on germanium as it is used in solar cells and microcircuits, shifting from a past interest in uranium.

"What that means is they want to come in and strip mine that earth and we're not ready for that," Helms said, adding one company advised it wants to begin strip mining in 2015.

"They want to strip mine this stuff, haul it into Belfield, heat leach the germanium, molybdenum and uranium out of it and then haul the soils back to the mine and rebury them," Helms said. "Our rules aren't ready for that. We've got five years to get our arms around this thing."

The minerals are found within coal lignite seams from 6 inches to 6 feet below the topsoil.

This wouldn't be the areas first go-around with uranium.

From 1962 to 1967, about nine to 16 mines produced about 85,000 tons of uranium ore in southwest North Dakota, according to documents drafted by State Geologist Edward Murphy, assistant director of the North Dakota Geological Survey.

After nearly 10 years of inactivity and an increase in the price of uranium, activity picked up again and from 1976 to 1978, more than 1,300 exploration holes were drilled mainly in Adams, Billings, Bowman, Slope and Stark counties, according to the NDGS documents.

Murphy said no uranium mining permits were issued from 1979 to 2008, but mining interest has increased throughout the last five years.

And interest is picking up again.

Canadian-based Entrée Gold Inc. acquired PacMag Metals Ltd. in June and with that acquisition came the rights to the "Sentinel project," located about 31 miles southwest of Dickinson, which includes the Church uranium deposit, according to the Entrée Gold web site.

The acquisition consists of one mineral lease of about 5,200 acres and two prospecting permits that cover about 2,900 acres, according to the web site.

While it is unclear if Entrée Gold is the company that approached state officials, it has expressed interest in area mineral deposits.

Lindsay Bottomer, vice president of corporate development for Entrée Gold, said the possibility exists for the sites to be re-opened, re-explored and elements extracted.

Bottomer said uranium prices would be a key factor.

"For the uranium I would say there's a fairly good possibility," Bottomer said, adding price projections are on an upward trend. "With the reactor demand for uranium that looks like a realistic possibility so at that level it's certainly worth doing some substantial exploration."

For that to happen, some properties would probably need to be pooled.

"On our property we don't have enough to do anything at the moment but there's potential to find more," Bottomer said. "But you'd have to spend money on exploration. But the potential's there."

While Entrée Gold is not actively exploring the Sentinel project as it is still a fairly new acquisition, the company is considering the option of partnering with a company largely focused on uranium.

"We had some consultants on the ground recently basically just checking out and verifying the data that we got from PacMag and also confirming that the access was fine and the agreements were fine and basic stuff like that," Bottomer said. "Now we're assessing the data and basically looking around, talking with people about potentially reactivating the property but most likely in partnership with someone who is specifically a uranium-oriented company."

Bottomer said while national uranium demand is not high, it certainly is worldwide.

"There's a tremendous amount of nuclear reactors being constructed which certainly adds to the supply requirements," Bottomer said.

Considering a number of factors, the earliest uranium could or would be mined is four to five years, Bottomer said.

Helms said the DMR has been trying to figure out how to manage the arena as previous rules covered another mining method. DMR has been soliciting input and will be writing new rules, Helms said.

While jurisdictions are in place at the Legislature, more work needs to be done on the rules, Helms said.

"Obviously if you're going to strip mine something that contains uranium you've got to worry a lot about dust ... that's going to be our number one worry," Helms said.