Last updated 3:11AM ET
April 27, 2015
Local Features
Local Features
First US Fluorspar Mine in 20 Years Opens in Livingston County
Jimmy Watson stands in front of what will be the opening to the mine.
(wkms) - In the first half of the twentieth century, western Kentucky was a prime producer of fluorspar. You may never have heard of fluorspar, but it's all around you, in your paint, your steel . . . even in your toothpaste. Fluorspar is a mineral used in manufacturing; think hydrofluoric acids. Its watered down cousin, fluoride, goes into your toothpaste and in your water supply. In the nineties, increased production in China shut down all US producers, who couldn't compete with China's cheaper prices. In the past few years, Chinese fluorspar prices have gone up and imports have dropped. As Angela Hatton reports, that's prompting one regional mining company to rediscover western Kentucky's fluorspar deposits.

Near the town of Burna in Livingston County down a steep country road full of curves and potholes, in this gravel patch between trees and cornfields it's empty save some cicadas.

But huge rough tracks cut into the road ahead are a sign that this isn't just the middle of nowhere. A distant rumble of an engine grows, as a dump truck with five foot tall wheels drives up. Hastie Mining Manager Jimmy Watson has plans for that truck. He's going to drive it into the side of a hill.

"We're going to be driving our trucks straight underground instead of using a shaft to go in under. We'll load underground and drive straight out so we can get more production."

Watson and a small crew have stripped the vegetation off the hillside and are scraping through shale and sandstone there to build the mouth of the mine. When active, the mine will produce about 50,000 tons a year. U-S Geological Survey Fluorspar Specialist Michael Miller says that isn't a lot compared to international standards.

But for Hastie's purposes, that's essentially all they'll need."

Hastie sells to manufacturers that use fluorspar to coat welding rods, make fiberglass insulation and Freon. Fluorspar also makes it into paint fillers. Watson says before Hastie Mining decided to build a mine, they'd purchased fluorspar from stockpiles the Department of Defense had accumulated.

"We had been purchasing that for like five years, and now that supply's getting low, so w'ha we have to buy off of China and Mexico to support our customers."

Miller says China, Mexico, and South Africa are the biggest international suppliers. Miller says China peaked in 2002 and 2003.

"China exported 1.2 million tons of fluorspar."

In 2009, that number was down to around 200,000 tons.

"It basically boils down to they're not exporting it because they're consuming most of it domestically in China."

That's left the door open for Hastie Mining's fluorspar venture. In addition to the mine, the company has purchased a plant in nearby Salem where the purple and white fluorspar crystals will be ground down to a powder and purified. Watson hopes the production will be up and running on a 24-hour schedule by the end of the year. He says the fluorspar operation could employ over 70 people. Livingston County Judge-Executive Chris Lasher says the county's natural resources put them in a good position as the economy recovers.

"When you add new jobs to a community, it's extremely important, and fluorspar's had a long tradition here, a long tradition of mining here."

Watson says their fluorspar mine is near another that was open in the 30s and 40s. This mine is named Klondike II, in homage to the original. Watson says the Klondike II deposit is roughly three million tons. He says their geologists will continue to explore, and may mine other veins in the county. Michael Miller says Hastie's cornered the US market, even though there are likely more fluorspar deposits throughout the country.

"It's just that it's like, in out of the way places in Idaho and Montana and places like that where it would be very expensive to develop, even if it was found."

Hastie Mining won't get rich mining fluorspar. Major manufacturing companies continue to use the mineral, but some have transitioned to other processes and chemicals to make their goods. Demand has also decreased with the slowed down economy. But with their new local source of fluorspar, Hastie plans to keep their business sound.

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