Mining firm still optimistic about Nebraska mine for rare mineral despite $900M cost estimate

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OMAHA, Nebraska — It could cost more than $900 million to begin extracting a rare heat-resistant element in southeast Nebraska, but the Canadian firm pursuing the mine project remains optimistic it will be built.

NioCorp Developments officials discussed the latest projections for a niobium mine near Elk Creek with investors Monday. Chairman Mark Smith said he believes the company will be able to secure financing to build the mine through a combination of borrowing money and issuing stock. He said the mine could start delivering ore as soon as late 2017.

"This is a very doable and financeable project," Smith said.

The United States currently imports nearly all the niobium companies use to harden steel and make it more heat-resistant. The U.S. Geologic Survey estimates $500 million worth of niobium was imported last year.

NioCorp estimates that it will need $919 million up front to build the mine, a significantly higher figure than earlier projections, which called for between $300 million and $400 million. Smith says the numbers will likely improve as the plans are better defined later this year.

In addition to niobium, NioCorp now expects to be able to produce scandium and titanium from the mine as byproducts of the effort to extract niobium from the ore.

A technical report on the mine's prospects done by outside experts is expected to be completed this fall, one of the final pieces that must be completed before NioCorp tries to raise the money to build the mine.

The construction of a mine would likely employ roughly 1,000 people; about 300 people would be employed when its operating.

It's not certain a mine will be built. Decades ago, Colorado-based Molycorp spent several years exploring the niobium deposit near Elk Creek before abandoning plans for a mine in the 1990s. Niobium prices have increased since then.

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