China may rule the increasingly ravenous world market for rare metals used to make smartphones, clean-energy technology, guided missiles and bombs.
But Colorado and other Western states also contain significant caches of rare metals – the makings of a modern-day gold rush. Mining companies, the federal government and state agencies are pushing to find out just how much potential new money lies beneath the dirt.
The exploratory work is intensifying because, after undercutting global prices for rare earths in the 1990s, China now mines 97 percent of the world supply. Past mining operations left Colorado with 7,300 abandoned projects that still leak toxic waste into soil and water.