Company reflects optimism about SE Nebraska Niobium Project

NioCorp's Denver office. (Photo: Bill Kelly/NET News)
November 7, 2019 - 7:39pm

“Southeast Nebraska: get ready for change.”

With that call to action Mark Smith, CEO of the upstart mining company NioCorp, concluded the company’s annual report to shareholders in Denver on Thursday. In an interview prior to the meeting, Smith told NET News the region “needs to prepare for some big changes” ahead of the company obtaining necessary financing.

NioCorp CEO Mark Smith (left) chairing the shareholder's meeting. (Photo: Bill Kelly/NET News)

Drilling for core samples to test mineral content in 2011,  prior to NioCorp's involvement. (Photo: Bill Kelly)

And when would that be?

"We’re right on the verge here,” Smith said.

Plans to mine the rare earth elements beneath Elk Creek Nebraska have been floating around for years.

If developed, it would be the only North American operation mining and processing niobium, titanium, and one of the world’s largest known deposits of scandium. All three elements have benefits in creating super-strong and light-weight metal alloys useful for civilian and military aircraft. 

Currently, all other suppliers are from outside of the United States. The U.S. Department of Defense considers maintaining supplies of the materials a necessity for national security. Profits for NioCorp are projected to be in the billions of dollars.

Should the mine project advance, the change for southeast Nebraska, and Johnson County specifically, includes everything that would come with the construction and operation of a large scale mining and industrial project. The company insists they will continue to work to minimize traffic and related disruptions. 

During the presentation, the company said it anticipates 1200 temporary workers will be brought in for the three-year construction phase, many with skills specific to the mining industry. Another 400 permanent jobs would be in place for the 30-year life span of the underground mine.

Speaking to a handful of investors at a Denver lawyer’s office, along with a global phone-in audience NioCorp officials spent much of the meeting discussing the team of engineering firms, construction companies, and other specialists standing by to build the mine and design systems to extract the minerals.

Investors in over-the-counter shares, some of whom hoped for years for the stock to blossom, would have loved hearing the company secured outside financial backing needed to begin construction. That announcement did not happen, nor was it realistic to expect according to market watchers. 

Smith, bound by federal regulations governing investments, could only tell those on the conference call he will, and by law must announce financing has been secured the day the agreement is signed. 

Barraged by emailed questions from those listening in, Smith could only say, “as soon as there is something that our lawyers consider to be definitive enough, I will be the first one yelling at the top of the hill to let everyone know.”

Anticipation has only grown following recent announcements from NioCorp, indicating the company is ready to start digging within weeks of getting the money. Among them:

  • Selection of Texas-based Zachry Group to design and build above-ground processing facilities to complete the extraction of the raw minerals.
  • Selection of Cementation Americas Group of Sandys, Utah, as the lead contractor for the underground aspects the mine. The company has experience internationally.
  • A package $200 million worth of State of Nebraska tax-breaks, approved as part of the state’s economic development incentives to attract new businesses.
  • Advancement of water and air impact statements with state regulators. Recent design changes, according to the company, will minimize environmental impacts.
  • Filing of a special-use permit with Johnson County, triggering a public comment period to discuss whether the county should change the type of business allowed on the land recently acquired for the mine.

About a dozen shareholders attended the Denver meeting, including a few from Nebraska with a particular interest in the Elk Creek project. It was a first for the company. Smith noted at past meetings only NioCorp employees and the company’s legal counsel would sit through the formalities and the phone-in session.

“I think people have been talking about this project for a long time,” he told NET News. “We’re going to make this project happen. And we all need to get ready for those changes because there will be big changes. But change is in the air.” 

(EDITOR'S NOTE:  In this revision, the author corrected the spelling of the Zachry Group.



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