Weekly Review: Australia’s saga of missed REE opportunities

There’s that famous line in the 1954 movie On the Waterfront. You know the one – when Marlon Brando says to Rod Steiger “I coulda been a contender”.

Well, a number of Australians could well feel that way about the rare earth industry. With the ongoing Lynas Corp situation in Malaysia – the latest development being the Malaysian government’s decision to establish a parliamentary committee to examine the rare earths plant now under construction – it might be appropriate to recall how environmentalists derailed plans to get Australia into the rare earths business – 25 years ago!

Just imagine: if Australia had started producing and treating REE back in the late 1980s, the country could by now be a world player. We wouldn’t all be fretting about China.

Doing some research into another REE subject, I came upon these facts buried way down in the voluminous website maintained by the federal agency, Geoscience Australia.

It tells us that, in January 1987, it was announced French chemical company Rhone-Poulenc proposed to build a two-stage monazite processing plant at Pinjarra, Western Australia. A quick check found a reference in a 1992 report in the London based magazine The Economist which, in a scathing article about how environmentalists and others had blocked several mining projects, it noted: “A A$150 million rare-earths project proposed by Rhone-Poulenc at Pinjarra was blocked when the company had difficulty gaining environmental approval for the project”. The French company’s gallium plant at the site, which had opened only a year before, was also forced to close.

In 1995 there was a report that Rhone-Poulenc was planning to resurrect its REE plant plans and proposed processing 12,000 tonnes a year of monazite. But that soon fizzled out. Murray Shire Council had proposed a $10 million site rehabilitation bond be posted but this was overruled by the West Australian planning minister of the time.

(Another company, Canada’s Hatch Kaiser, tried in 2001 to get the gallium operation going again – but it promised it would not process rare earths. Hatch Kaiser was acting on behalf of GEO Chemicals, based in Cleveland, Ohio.)

Geoscience Australia also tells us that a rutile and zircon producer, Currumbin Minerals, was in 1988 blocked on environmental grounds from establishing a rare earths processing plant at Lismore, New South Wales. What is interesting about this is that the location was NSW, not a state normally associated with REE. (However, it should be noted that there have been plans to launch an IPO for a new exploration company based on REE targets in northern NSW; these have not proceeded due to the parlous state of the equity market in terms of launching new mining companies.)

There have also been sporadic attempts over the years to start REE production in Australia as noted by Geoscience Australia. At Byron Bay, again in northern NSW, Zircon Rutile Ltd in the 1950s processed a small quantity of monazite to produce cerium oxide for glass polishing. In 1969, Rare Earth Corporation – operating at Port Pirie, South Australia – began producing cerium, lanthanum, yttrium and thorium compounds from locally produced monazite. As GA adds: “However, the plant ceased operations in mid-1972 because of a lack of working capital and difficulty of breaking into world markets for processed rare earths”.

The Port Pirie story is interesting in light of the opposition in Malaysia to the Lynas operation. It ended in 2006 when, as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported, buildings at the former Port Pirie rare earth treatment were about to be torn down before a clean-up of the site. As the plant also processed uranium, there was low-grade radioactive waste under slag dumps.

It’s a real tale of missed opportunities. And Australia is only now starting to get back into the REE game.

 But expect the environmentalists to do their best to derail the dream once again.