Never mind the lawsuits, regulatory hurdles and competing against the Chinese. Jim Kennedy is plotting a comeback for the mine he used to own in eastern Missouri.
The St. Louis-area developer was forced to sell the now shuttered Pea Ridge Mine in Washington County in January 2012. The new owners of the iron ore mine say they are testing its flooded caves and figuring out a storage and disposal plan for mining waste before deciding whether to reopen.
But Kennedy retains a 70 percent stake in the mine's other resources. They including rare earth minerals, a key ingredient in laptop computers, cellphones and other household electronics that are almost exclusively mined in China.
And he's a relentless advocate for thorium, a radioactive mining byproduct that Kennedy touts as a green energy alternative to uranium-reliant nuclear power. He speaks of thorium's benefits with an evangelistic zeal, recounting how U.S. scientists were on the brink of major breakthroughs before ceding the research battle to scientists in China.
He also bemoans the failure of traditional mines to exploit an underutilized resource. "They throw them away, and drop them right back into the tailings lake," Kennedy said of the standard mining approach to rare earth minerals.
It's a message that's generated enthusiasm among lawmakers, including state Rep. David Schatz. A resolution introduced by the Sullivan Republican and co-sponsored by 30 others calls for development of Pea Ridge as a rare earth refinery and urges Congress to revise federal law to allow for a thorium "storage bank." The measure won the backing of two House committees before the Missouri Legislature adjourned on Friday.
"There's a huge opportunity with that aspect of the mine," Schatz said. "As I look at our potential energy needs in the future, this is a resource we need to look at. It's clean energy, it's abundant and it's a much safer alternative than nuclear energy."
Patrick Pinhero, a University of Missouri chemical engineering professor, testified in support of Schatz's resolution at a mid-April hearing of the House Utilities Committee. He noted Missouri is "uniquely suited" to embrace thorium energy. Both the flagship campus in Columbia and the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla are home to research reactors.
Pea Ridge is one of two U.S. mines where rare earth elements can be mined. The other, in California's Death Valley, is owned by a company by that both Kennedy and Pinhero said sells its refined minerals to companies in China.
The state House resolution also notes that discrepancy, along with the limitation that Molycorp Inc.'s mine in Mountain Pass, Calif., has only eight of the 16 recoverable rare earth elements. The elements are a key component in the manufacture of lasers, missile guidance systems and other pillars of defense - another reason why proponents are pushing for a domestic alternative to the Chinese.
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"We've given most of it away - the refining methods and the intellectual property associated with it - to other countries," said Pinhero, who is researching a portable thorium power source at his lab. "They can squash anybody who tries to make a run at it."
Kennedy's company retains a 70 percent stake in minerals other than iron ore following a messy legal dispute with a former business partner that culminated in the sale of the mine he purchased in 2001, the same year it closed.
The new owners are MFC Industrial Ltd., a Canadian commodities supply chain company, and Alberici Constructors, which is based in St. Louis County. Kennedy's first step in reviving the mine's fortunes will be convincing them to reopen the facility.
"If we determine to move forward with the project, significant additional investment would be required," said Rene Randall, an MFC Industrial vice president.