- - Tuesday, September 1, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown Americans a myriad of emotional as well as economic challenges. The death toll from the virus has now surpassed 150,000 and is climbing higher every day. Our once-robust economy is struggling to regain its luster with analysts now warning that recent jobs gains could be stalled as some states roll back their re-openings. 

While our focus has rightly been inward as we combat COVID-19, our global competitors are being increasingly provocative — tensions with Iran percolated in the spring when Iranian fast boats continued to harass our naval ships, Russian fighter jets are also buzzing our naval ships and China is making aggressive moves into both disputed Indian territory and the South China Sea.

These troubling incidents underscore the challenge of being a global superpower while dealing with a domestic crisis. But that domestic crisis has taught us an important lesson about the uncertainty of our supply chain as Americans witnessed a breakdown getting critical resources like ventilators, testing kits, and masks into the right hands in the fight against the virus. To avoid a repeat, we must take steps to repatriate our global supply chains, injecting certainty into our strategic balance while reducing foreign dependency. The United States must be well-equipped to weather the next crisis, be it globally or here at home. 

We have an opportunity to do just that with the vital defense and energy industries. This all centers around a mineral called antimony, considered a critical mineral by Defense Department officials who placed it on their list of strategic and non-fuel defense material shortfalls. Not a surprise given the military’s reliance on high tech electronics such as night vision goggles, communications equipment and infrared sensors — all of which use antimony — as do nearly all conventional munitions. 

It’s not just the military that relies on this rare mineral. Due to antimony’s hardening properties and corrosion protection, the energy industry — including renewable — utilizes it in wind turbines and nuclear energy. Finally, you are likely reading this on your phone or computer and for that you can thank antimony as it helps to make glass clear and doesn’t impact its color.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Geologic Survey (USGS) reports that the domestic supply of this wonder mineral is limited and, worse, at risk with neither a strategic stockpile nor current domestic production. In fact, there was zero domestic mine production of antimony last year and with its importance to our defense and energy industries, we are left with no other choice but to depend on imports — from China which is our leading source of antimony, followed by Russia, another global predator. 

China produces most of the world’s antimony yet uncertainties abound in the supply chain due to the continually changing political environment in Beijing. Making matters worse, in 2013, the Chines government imposed antimony export restrictions that reduced availability and increased prices. China has repeatedly used its control of various mineral supply sources and supply chains as a hatchet for political purposes against the U.S. and its western allies. Chinese officials have raised the restriction of critical and rare earth minerals during trade negotiations. 

Fortunately, we have an in-house supply just waiting to be tapped: Idaho’s Stibnite Mining District, home to the largest known antimony deposit in the nation. According to Midas Gold, the company hoping to both mine and restore the brownfields site, the Stibnite Gold Project will produce over 100 million pounds of antimony. 

It has spent tens of millions over the last decade studying the site, engaging the local community and developing an environmentally responsible mining plan that will also bring hundreds of jobs and revenue to the area. Demonstrating their commitment, Midas Gold has committed funds to restore water quality, landscape, fisheries and natural habitat caused by under-regulated mining activities before, during and after World War II, when this site produced an estimated 90% of America’s demand for antimony.

But times have changed and Midas Gold has jumped through every bureaucratic regulatory hoop required of it on this project. Right now, the United States Forest Service is conducting a 60-day comment period following the release of the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). 

Rather than allowing antimony to lay dormant underground in Idaho and be dependent on questionable suppliers, we need to seize the opportunity the Stibnite Mining District presents to us. Doing so will enable the nation to balance our reliance on foreign sources while strengthening the supply chain for critical products our defense and energy industries produce. In short, it will be a lesson learned.

• James “Spider” Marks is a retired U.S. Army major general.

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