ELKO, NEVADA ALSO MEANS BARITE MINING
Long before gold miners were profitably mining the vast gold ore deposits of the Carlin Trend, Elko was still mining country - barite mining country that it. Barite mining began soon after the Second World War and continues today.
The Rossi Mine, named after the cowboy who discovered the deposit, is owned by the oil services company Halliburton. Today, it is the largest source of barite in the United States and is wrapping up baseline studies for additional expansion. If approved, it plans to grow from 80 employees to 140 in the near future. At the same time, it has to balance the expansion with Elko's game animal habitat and the local big game hunting industry.
Barite has many industrial uses. While most barite is used in oil and gas drilling, it also used as a nontoxic filler in certain plastics and foams and in brake and clutch pads. Since it absorbs x-rays, there is also a pharmaceutical grade of the mineral used for those "barium milkshakes" used for intestinal x-rays. It is also mixed with concrete for hospitals and other facilities that use x-ray machines. Since it's heavy, it is used as ship's ballast and counterweights in heavy equipment like those manufactured by Caterpillar/ Bucyrus.
About 95% of barite consumption goes to the oil and gas industry as a drilling fluid (mud) for their drilling rigs. Barite's primary quality is that it's heavy, which helps control hole pressure. Drillers mix ground barite with water to make "mud," then pump the mixture down the hole to control the gas pressures found in the well. Although other minerals are heavy, like iron, lead or witherite (barium carbonate), barite is cheaper, relatively inert, insoluble, nontoxic, and soft (so it doesn't wear drilling equipment).
Barite is a heavy, brittle material, so processing is relatively easy. It is mined in open pits and separated from lighter material with jigs, flotation apparatus, and magnetic separators. The Rossi Mine likes to remind local residents that no chemicals are needed to refine and purify barite for their customers - an important point since big game animals are a source of tourist revenue.
The critical factor in barite mining is the specific gravity of the mineral being mined. The American Petroleum Institute has decreed that drilling fluid grade barite must have a specific gravity of 4.2 (4.2 times heavier than water). Although much of the barite from the Rossi Mine fits these standards, there is lighter barite that contains lighter impurities like quartz, gypsum, and siderite. This is set aside and later blended with barite with a specific gravity greater than 4.2. Drilling fluid barite is then is shipped elsewhere for grinding into a fine powder of 3 to 74 microns.
New Demand for Elko's Barite
The US is the third largest producer of barite, behind China and India. But, when it comes to domestic consumption, the Rossi Mine has a built-in advantage. Barite's weight makes long distance shipping, especially from overseas producers, prohibitive.
Fortunately, America's current oil boom is boosting the demand for drilling mud and the Rossi Mine is best positioned to take advantage of the booming oil fields in North Dakota. Nevada is closer to North Dakota and therefore their barite is cheaper than the Chinese.
The future looks good for barite demand in North Dakota. Experts say that North Dakota will soon surpass Alaska and California as an oil producing state and become number two (Texas remaining at number one). The North Dakota Petroleum Council said production numbers for January 2013 were a record breaking 738,022 BOPD from record breaking 8,322 wells. Inn addition, there are currently 185 rigs active in North Dakota and they are expected to keep busy for the foreseeable future. 99% of the wells drilled in the Bakken and Three Forks-Spanish oil fields hit oil and nine in ten are profitable.
As a result of this oil boom, the Rossi Mine is expanding. It currently mines on public land and has a 23 year reserve.
However, it has plans to expand the open pits in order to meet growing demand. The biggest problem appears to be maintaining public access roads that go across the mining area and may interfere with new open pit operations or tailings. The Rossi Mine is working with Elko County officials and has promised to fund any new roads if mining interdicts the old road network.
The Rossi Mine expansion may impact local game animals and their habitat. Northeastern Nevada is known for big game hunting and hunters come to Elko to hunt mule deer, antelope, mountain lion, and sage grouse. Deer hunting is an important recreation in rural Nevada and the Rossi claims sit along a mule deer migratory corridor. There is a current controversy in Elko about the number of mule deer in the area and the number of deer hunting licenses to be issued.
The Rossi Mine Is taking this into account as it charts its expansion. It knows one way to lose public support is if its actions cut down deer populations and limit the number of deer hunting licenses issued. The mine is also monitoring sage grouse populations and not mining within three miles of grouse leks during the mating season.