LINCOLN — Like a rocket on a launching pad, a long-discussed niobium mine in southeast Nebraska is ready for liftoff — but only if it gathers $1 billion in financing.
The process of gathering financial commitments is underway in earnest, officials say, with the recent completion of a feasibility study of the project to extract niobium, scandium and titanium from deep mines south of Tecumseh.
By the first quarter of 2018, it should be clear whether all or portions of the mining operation will proceed and the hiring of construction workers can begin, according to Scott Honan and Jim Sims, the president and vice president, respectively, of NioCorp Development Ltd.
Both officials expressed optimism that the unique project will obtain the necessary investments and loans to move forward after eight years of tests and planning.
“It might come in pieces, it might come all together,” said Sims, of the financing. “The economics of the project are very strong.”
“I wish we could give you a more definitive answer as to when,” Honan said.
To update local residents about the status of the project, NioCorp is holding a town hall meeting today at 6 p.m. at the Kimmel Ag Expo Center in Syracuse.
The mine has been discussed for decades in the region, but activities accelerated in 2014 when NioCorp began drilling test holes up to 3,000 feet deep to better determine the extent of the rare earth mineral deposits beneath farmland.
Officials say the mine has the largest niobium deposits in North America, and that if opened, it would become the world’s largest producer of scandium, which is used to make lightweight aluminum used for aircraft and vehicles.
The company has already spent about $30 million on the project, which it estimates will require up to 1,200 construction workers, create up to 466 permanent jobs and generate $27 million a year in state and local taxes over the 30-year-plus lifespan of the project.
“This could put Nebraska on the map,” said former State Sen. Lavon Heidemann of Elk Creek, a former miner who has worked as a business development adviser for NioCorp for several years.
The company has contracts to mine under 4,800 acres of land, but its headquarters and processing facilities would be on 640 acres at the intersection of State Highways 50 and 62, just west of the village of Elk Creek.
NioCorp has already discussed the possibility of locating a temporary work camp for construction workers in Tecumseh, according to Tecumseh Mayor Bill Montz Sr.
“It’s a plus all the way around,” Montz said. “I have high hopes and I think most of the people do.”
Niobium, which is used to harden steel, is the primary product to be extracted, and NioCorp officials say they already have commitments from two companies to buy 75 percent of the niobium output during the mine’s first 10 years.
But the officials said that scandium would provide 60 percent of the mine’s revenue. Sims said that very little scandium is produced worldwide, but it is a much-sought-after mineral because it allows aircraft and vehicles to use lighter-weight aluminum, reducing fuel costs and exhaust emissions.
“I call it the lightweighting revolution,” he said. “It’s expanding.”
The titanium extracted from the mine would be sold for pigments in paints and for metals used by the defense industry.
Concerns already have been raised about NioCorp’s plans to dispose of salty wastewater that will be used in the mining process.
Honan said deep wells will extract water to keep the 1,500- to 2,400-foot-deep mine from flooding. The company has proposed piping the wastewater to the Missouri River. Honan said that modeling by NioCorp and the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality has indicated that the salty water will quickly mix in and be diluted by the river.
“We’re going to increase (the salt content) but it won’t be close to the regulatory limit,” Honan said.
Brian McManus, a spokesman for the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, confirmed that preliminary discussions and modeling have been done by NioCorp and the department, but he said he could not comment on the results because the company has not yet submitted any applications to discharge wastewater.