When it comes to Appalachian coal, it might be appropriate to borrow from that often-misquoted phrase from Mark Twain: “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

Today the world scrambles for supplies of rare earth elements — elements that are critical in the components of high-tech devices, including smartphones, digital cameras, computer hard discs, flat screen televisions, computer monitors, electronic displays and, yes, even electric vehicles, wind power and other green technologies of the future.

Mark Wohlander

Mark Wohlander

Today, the United States imports most of its rare earth elements from China. In 2018, it was estimated that the cost of imports of rare earth elements in total dollars was relatively low, approximately $160 million. However, the cost of imported products manufactured in China from rare earth elements was estimated at approximately $2 trillion.

Obviously, as the United States shifts its focus on energy production to green technology, the demand for rare earth elements will continue to grow. What should concern all Americans is that as China’s demands for rare earth elements increase, the amount of rare earth elements available to the United States will decrease — elements that are critical for many industries, including, most importantly, the development of green technologies.

With that said, it is time to return the focus to Eastern Kentucky, which has some of the richest deposits of rare earth elements in the United States. In fact, the largest deposits of rare earth elements can be found in the fire clay coal seam in several counties of Eastern Kentucky: Pike, Letcher, Floyd, Knott, Perry, Leslie, Harlan, Bell, Magoffin and Martin.

What makes the extraction of rare earth elements viable from the fire clay coal seam in Eastern Kentucky is the work of Professor Rick Honaker and a team of mineral engineers at the University of Kentucky. The work of this amazing team has resulted in a technology that now makes it economically feasible to extract rare earth elements from the fire clay coal seam in Eastern Kentucky.

In an interview with Professor Honaker in 2018, Professor Honaker noted, “Since coal is a major economic source in parts of our state, providing a means of recovering an important byproduct adds economic strength and viability to coal industries … . So, that’s why Kentucky is interested in developing this, as well as the fact that the commonwealth is a pretty large manufacturing state.”

As Eastern Kentucky recovers from the years of losses of coal jobs, it is time to refocus the economic development dollars being pumped into the region to a program to develop the next generation of jobs that focus on the extraction of rare earth elements.

It is time to end the spending of economic development dollars on trips to foreign countries, endless conferences and studies that produce few if any benefits or, for that matter, jobs for the region. Instead, it is time for all of the region’s economic development partners to consider the potential growth of the region as the demand for rare earth elements in the United States increases, while at the same time the imports of rare earth elements from China decrease.

Of course, the extraction of rare earth elements cannot be the only focus of economic development in the region, especially when one considers all of the hidden tourism treasures that already exist in the mountains.

The people of the mountains should be proud of their rich heritage and all that is offered in the region. The future of the region, including the development of new industries and tourism opportunities, should not be ignored. Instead, the people of the mountains should once again stand tall and proud for all of their contributions to the American dream.

Maybe it is time for the region to rebrand itself as the “Gateway to Hidden Treasures." It is time for the leaders of the mountains to promote all that Appalachia has to offer and for leaders to join hands, look to a new future and promote the region as a great place to “play, shop, live and work.”

Mark Wohlander, a military veteran, former FBI agent and federal prosecutor, practices law in Lexington and eastern Kentucky. His email address is fivesmoothstonesky@gmail.com.

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