Rising price of strategic cobalt may revive mine in tiny Idaho town

Increasing concern about US vulnerability to a cutoff of strategic metals imports has prompted a move to reopen the nation's only cobalt mine, here in central Idaho.

There is better than a 50-50 chance that Noranda Mines, Ltd., of Ontario will reopen the Blackbird mine in Cobalt, according to the mining company's district geologist, Gordon Hughes.

To prepare for this eventuality, Noranda has brought in about 125 miners and geologists to determine the geologic feasibility and to apply for the necessary permits, he said.

The Blackbird mine is the only one in the United States ever developed primarily for cobalt. It was shut down in the 1950s when the price of cobalt fell to about $1.75 a pound because new African sources were developed. In recent months the price on the world market has climbed to more than $25 per pound.

Cobalt is a silvery-white metal used in high-temperature resistant alloys in jet aircraft engines, in metal cutting tools, and as a catalyst in oil refining.

Also, cobalt magnets are key elements in electric-car motors. Development of the cars is being hampered because of the lack of a guaranteed cobalt supply, experts say.

About 85 percent of the world's supply comes from Zaire and Zambia. Most of the rest comes from Soviet Union. Since the 1978 invasion of Shaba Province by Angolan- based rebels, cobalt has "only been trickling" out of Zaire, Mr. Hughes said.

A decision to reopen the Blackbird mine depends in part of gaining necessary permits and on a US Forest Service environmental impact statement.

Mining of cobalt here left a bad reputation in the 1950s because it caused heavy pollution of nearby streams and creeks that feed into the Salmon River, said site manager Jim Johnstone. But he said Noranda will take steps to ameliorate the pollution problem.

Mr. Johnstone is eager to reopen the mines and get them back in operation.

But a possible hitch in reopening plans involves the proposed establishment of a 2.2 million-acre River of No Return Wilderness Area in central Idaho.

Earlier this month a subcommittee of US House of Representatives approved legislation creating the wilderness area. But it exempted the mining of cobalt, an activity that would not ordinarily be allowed in a wilderness area.

A cobalt exemption was written into the legislation after representatives of the Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Company testified that cobalt was a critical ingredient in the manufacture of jet engines.

Noranda officials, however, said they believe the language of the exemption would still prevent mining of cobalt in the wilderness area.

When the Blackbird mine was in operation, its entire output was sold to the US government and stockpiled. At its peak, about 500 men worked the mine, and the town of Cobalt had a population of about 1,500. Census figures today put the population at about 200.

If the mine were reopened, Noranda would employ about 300 miners. Most of them, however, would like in nearby Salmon, Idaho, and commute to the mine.

Known reserves would keep the mine in operation about 10 years, officials say.

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