Elk Creek Superalloy Materials Project

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.

Yet the U.S. relies 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 an 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 included GIS support, air dispersion modeling, and air quality regulatory and permitting analysis. We also helped our client with risk assessment and strategic planning.

Initially, the project appeared to need a Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) major source permit. 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 partners and determined emissions could be held below PSD thresholds. This included identifying opportunities to recycle process heat, which reduced fossil fuel combustion capacity and emissions.

At that point, we helped guide NioCorp through the rigorous state permitting process.

Olsson provided technical assistance and review to analyze ambient air quality monitoring data collected at the mine site. Our quality assurance/quality control procedures revealed that some 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 state and federal regulators allowed us to identify and negotiate permit language that met the needs of NioCorp while fulfilling the responsibilities of the 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.

Scott Honan, chief operating officer for NioCorp, praised the leadership at the NDEE and thanked the consultants at Olsson.

“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,” he said.

Meanwhile, the project has 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.

Nick Steinke
Technical Expert
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