Olsson Helps Critical Mineral Mine Obtain Critical-path Permits
Joe Duggan, Communications
November 18, 2020
Superalloy metals are considered so vital to our national and economic security that the United States has designated 35 of their component materials as critical minerals.
This group of superalloy materials can be used in steel manufacturing, aerospace components, electrical turbines, solid-state fuel cells, and critical infrastructure. Yet the U.S. relies heavily, or entirely, on imports for many of the listed materials, including niobium, scandium, and titanium. NioCorp Developments Ltd. (NioCorp), is working to construct the only mine in North America that will commercially produce all three metals at a state-of-the-art facility near Elk Creek, Nebraska.
Since 2014, the engineering experts at Olsson have made themselves an essential partner of NioCorp by providing civil engineering, geotechnical services, wastewater management design, and environmental permitting and compliance support to assist with the mine’s development.
Some of Olsson’s most valuable contributions to the project have involved helping NioCorp navigate U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) permitting programs (Sections 404 and 408) and National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permitting. More recently, Olsson led the effort to obtain a crucial air quality construction permit from the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy (NDEE), which ensures ground can be broken as soon as final financing is secured.
Our efforts to help obtain the NDEE permit included GIS support, air dispersion modeling, and air quality regulatory and permitting analysis. In addition to analyzing data and running calculations, we helped our client with risk assessment and strategic planning.
“This is a huge milestone for the company and another major de-risking of the Elk Creek Project,” NioCorp CEO Mark Smith said after the permit was issued. “Both the State of Nebraska and NioCorp take air quality, and environmental performance of this project, very seriously.”
Reaching the ultimate milestone of extracting and refining critical minerals embedded more than 1,000 feet below the earth’s surface would be impossible without first obtaining air quality permits. Mining and mineral processing operations use an assortment of mobile and stationary equipment, which is the source of air emissions.
Rendering of production facility at the Elk Creek Superalloy Materials Project.
Initially, the project appeared to need a Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) major source permit, the largest and most complex air permit required by federal regulation. As part of the PSD evaluation and application process, Olsson performed a Best Available Control Technology (BACT) analysis to evaluate the emission rates likely achievable using a range of emission control technologies. Through that process, we worked with NioCorp and other project partners to determine that emissions could be held below PSD thresholds. This included identifying opportunities to recycle process heat, which reduced fossil fuel combustion capacity and overall emissions.
At that point, we helped guide NioCorp through the rigorous state permitting process.
Olsson provided technical assistance and technical review to analyze ambient air quality monitoring data collected at the mine site. Our quality assurance/quality control procedures revealed that some of the data had been affected by smoke from prescribed grassland burns in neighboring Kansas. Regulators for the state and the Environmental Protection Agency agreed with our analysis, which resulted in greater operational flexibility for NioCorp.
Our relationships with officials at the state and federal levels allowed us to identify and negotiate permit language that met the needs of NioCorp while fulfilling the responsibilities of the regulatory agencies. Our efforts identified a format and approach that clearly spells out permit requirements, including emission limits, operational limits, testing and monitoring, and record keeping. Both parties agreed the format will serve them well, according to Nick Steinke, an engineering technical leader with Olsson’s Environmental team.
“We laid the groundwork for NioCorp and we met regulatory officials where they were at, and they were able to work through the permit process pretty quickly,” Nick said. “For a project this big, this new, and this technically complex to move through the permitting process as smoothly as it did is very successful. And it aligns with a goal of the NDEE director to provide more clarity for his staff and the regulated community regarding permitting and compliance.”
The air permit is just one aspect of the overall project Olsson has worked on. We also delivered these other services: evaluating the feasibility of bringing rail service to the site, completing geotechnical investigations, and helping navigate the permitting process to dispose of and store waste product (tailings) in on-site impoundments similar to a landfill.
Additionally, Olsson worked with NioCorp to design a facility that avoids all federally jurisdictional wetlands and streams on-site, eliminating the need for an individual Clean Water Act Section 404 permit. Olsson also evaluated the feasibility of constructing a waterline to the Missouri River to dewater the deep, confined subsurface geologic formation that would be mined. We coordinated with NDEE and prepared a mixing zone study to determine if discharges to the Missouri River would meet water quality requirements. We also coordinated with the USACE to minimize impacts to civil works projects (for example, Missouri Riverbank stabilization) under the Section 408 program.
Ultimately, NioCorp minimized its environmental footprint, avoiding the need to dewater the geologic formation and build a waterline to the Missouri River.
Scott Honan, chief operating officer for NioCorp, said the company has adopted a system that will capture up to 99-percent of emissions. In a statement, he praised the leadership at the NDEE and thanked the consultants at Olsson.
“I am very proud of how our team at NioCorp designed this facility in a manner that seeks to limit air emissions and mitigate environmental impacts,” he said. “Olsson has been an excellent partner on our project to this point, and we look forward to continuing our work with them as the project moves through financing to construction and commercial operation.”
Meanwhile, the project has already won its own accolades. In October, the Elk Creek Superalloy Materials Project was named an infrastructure project of the year by CG/LA Infrastructure, a global infrastructure strategy and project development firm.
Developing a reliable domestic source of these critical minerals clearly is essential to the nation’s interests. And so is protecting clean air.