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Mining at the former Grand Staircase monument?

Canadian firm says it wants to start exploration; geologists express doubts

SALT LAKE CITY — An environmental group is criticizing a Canadian company's announcement that it wants to extract copper, cobalt and other minerals from a defunct mine inside the boundaries of the former Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

“Mining is prohibited in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and any mining claims are invalid, just like President (Donald) Trump’s attempt to dismantle the monument, which we are already challenging in court," said Nada Culver, senior directory of agency policy and an attorney with The Wilderness Society.

"This company’s actions, and any others that try to mine within monument boundaries, will be scrutinized," Culver said.

In December, President Donald Trump announced from the state Capitol that the monument boundaries at Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears were being shrunk via proclamation.

Both Utah monument designations, 20 years apart by different presidential administrations, set off a political storm of controversy among leaders and earned praise from environmental groups.

The 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase now exists as three separate units totaling just over a million acres — a change that is being challenged in the courts.

In the interim, Canada-based Glacier Lake Resources announced earlier this month its intent to conduct surface exploration work this summer and to begin the drill permitting process at Colt Mesa in Garfield County within the former monument boundaries.

"There is strong investor interest in the battery metals sector, including cobalt, nickel and copper. With this new interest coupled with the growth of the (electric EV sector and strong demand for cobalt, the Colt Mesa project is a welcome addition to the company's ever-growing portfolio of projects, " Saf Dhillon, president and chief executive officer, said in a press release.

The release goes on to say that a company geologist made a site visit to the property and collected samples that were hand-delivered to a certified minerals laboratory with results that show concentrations of cobalt and demonstrations of bright copper oxides.

Records show a Utah County consulting geologist, Dan Proctor, filed 10 mining claims recorded in Garfield County in the Colt Mesa area on June 12.

The Bureau of Land Management still administers the land and any mining-related activity requires the submission of a notice to commence exploration and ultimately a mining plan of operations.

Kimberly Finch, spokeswoman for the BLM offices in Utah, said no such paperwork is on file for Glacier Lake Resources.

The Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining has not heard of the company and no paperwork is on file with that office, said spokeswoman Hollie Brown, who added a permit is required for any exploration activity.

Brown said the division is unaware of any mineral potential in that area.

The Colt Mesa deposit was discovered in 1968, according to the company's press release, and was mined intermittently from 1971 to 1974.

For 22 years, even before the monument designation, the mine was idled.

Ken Krahulec, an economic geologist with the Utah Geological Survey, is familiar with the Colt Mesa mine.

"It was a very small operation, it was successful and it was for copper," he said. "It seems like locally there are some very good copper grades, but that does not mean you can actually mine it."

Cobalt is a lesser product derived from nickel or copper mining and is driving the mining interest at Colt Mesa, Krahulec said.

"I don't think there are any really representative samples taken at this point to know what type of grades might be possible."

Cobalt is a key component of lithium-ion batteries that power laptops, cellphones and electric vehicles.

The price of cobalt has tripled in less than two years, jumping from $10 to $30 a pound. Mined in Congo, cobalt is in increasingly high demand as the electric vehicle market continues to surge.

Glacier Lake's press release notes the mineral presence in area.

"The Colt Mesa is renowned for brilliant, multicolored copper oxides attributed to the association with cobalt and molybdenum," it said.

But Krahulec is cautious.

"You can usually see the cobalt, so you can selectively pick up a sample, but that is nothing like a drill hole where you take a random sample," he said.

Mining is tough these days, he added, and especially cobalt mining.

"Exploration geologists — we are so warped because we are unsuccessful at least 99 percent of time. We call things a great property when it has one in 50 or even one in 100 chance of success," he said.

"There are hundreds of geologists in the Great Basin who spend their whole careers, 30 to 40 years, taking samples, but how many new mines are there?" Krahulec said. "They are all a long shot."

Efforts to reach Dhillon were unsuccessful.