Niobium may not be a familiar word to many Americans, but most people in the southeast Nebraska village of Elk Creek can speak fluently about the strategic metal, which has applications including strengthening steel, the New York Times reports. The area is the proposed site of a mine for niobium and other technology-critical elements, which would be the only niobium mine in America. The only American mine for rare earth elements is in Mountain Pass, California, but the federal government is seeking to step up domestic production of those elements and others on the list of critical minerals, defined as "a non-fuel mineral or mineral material essential to the economic or national security of the US and which has a supply chain vulnerable to disruption."
Elk Creek has a population of 69, according to the 2020 census, down from 112 in the 2000 census. The proposed mine would take 400 workers to build, and some opponents say they don't know how the area would cope with the extra residents. Opponents are also worried about toxic chemicals used in mining. Niocorp, which is trying to put financing together for the mine, has played up the patriotic side of the argument, noting digging for rare minerals in the US will reduce reliance on China. New versions of lithium ion electric vehicle batteries are expected to increase demand for niobium, but the company's messaging has focused on traditional uses in products like pipelines and missiles, the Times notes.
Some residents hope the mine will revitalize the area. "We've had a harder time keeping the younger generation here," propane store owner Don Gottula tells the Times. "We need a booster shot, I guess you could say." Niocorp, which already planned to mine titanium and scandium at the site as well as niobium, said last year that it had detected America's second-largest deposit of magnetic rare earths in the area, enough for it to "stand out from virtually every other greenfield project in the US in terms of its potential ability to produce multiple critical minerals," KETV reports. (Read more rare earth minerals stories.)