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Yellowknifer editorial: Nechalacho rare earths project a rare bright spot within a battered economic landscape

Correction: An error appeared in the original version of this editorial. Beryllium, niobium and tantalum are rare metals. Yellowknifer regrets the mistake.
Yellowknifer editorial logo Friday

Correction: An error appeared in the original version of this editorial. Beryllium, niobium and tantalum are rare metals. Yellowknifer regrets the mistake.

Some of us may have become somewhat inured to the economic havoc wrought by COVID-19.

For the past year and a half, it’s been one report after another of layoffs, businesses suffering major losses or closing down. There’s been waves of government financial support in hopes of staving off more bankruptcies.

And yet, 100 km southeast of Yellowknife, a success story is in progress.

The Nechalacho rare earths mine is closing in on its goal of extracting 600,000 tonnes of rock by the end of this month.

There are 60 employees working on rotation at the site, comprising 85 per cent Northerners and 70 per cent Indigenous, and that includes the mine manager, the majority of supervisors and lead hands, the environmental officer and the office manager.

Det’on Cho Nahanni Construction Corporation, owned by the Yellowknives Dene First Nation (YKDFN), has been hired to provide mining services for $8 million.

There are also spinoffs for approximately 160 Northern services and suppliers, such as airlines, manufacturers, food, fuel and environmental firms.

This is all happening because Cheetah Resources and Vital Metals, companies in Australia, covet the rare earth metals – commodities with names such as beryllium, niobium and tantalum – plucked from the rock and soil of the high boreal Taiga Shield ecosystem near Thor Lake. There’s a global thirst for these commodities, which are used in the manufacturing of items such as cellphones and laptops, wind turbines, energy efficient light bulbs, aerospace equipment and MRI scanners. It’s a Norwegian operation that has agreed to purchase the rare earths coming from the NWT. This is truly a global affair, and one that is circumventing China’s dominance in rare earths production, even in a modest way.

The mining industry has a long history in Yellowknife and the greater Northwest Territories. Gold attracted many people to the NWT capital between the late 1930s and 2003. Diamonds have sustained the economy for decades.

Now we’re adding rare earth elements to the mix.

Make no mistake, Nechalacho is currently a small-scale operation. It’s merely a “starter pit,” where mining began in June. It’s nowhere near the scope of Diavik, Ekati or Gacho Kue. However, Nechalacho has the potential to ramp up production and the mine life could far exceed 20 years, if exploratory drilling continues to strike pay dirt. The project is not at all insignificant.

To get to this stage, more than $120 million has been invested.

Many years were spent in planning, consultations and obtaining essential permits.

Regulatory controls are much more stringent now than when Giant mine and its dreaded arsenic trioxide byproduct left a permanent stain on the landscape.

Just over a year ago, Ernest Betsina, former Ndilo chief of the YKDFN, spoke positively of the direction that Cheetah Resources has taken.

“I am pleased with it because they (Cheetah) are hiring our YKDFN members and other First Nations. What better people to take care of the land than the people from the land and who know how to care for it?” said Betsina. “It seems to me that they are on to a good start and if they keep the same people employed right now, it will mean they will be more trained and used to the site and also be safer on the site.”

May the earths at Nechalacho remain rare, but the business benefits of mining much less so, for the sake of the NWT’s fragile economy.