COOS BAY — It’s common to find large chromite mining operations in South Africa, Kazakhstan and Turkey. But in Oregon? In Coos County?
Currently, the United States imports 100 percent of its chromite, but that soon will change when Oregon Resources Corp. starts sifting through piles of sand here later this year. Not only that, the mining firm contends it will be the most elite chromite worldwide.
“It’s a very specialty, top-notch product,” said Joseph Drew, director of geology at Oregon Resources.
The last time the heavy mineral had been produced here — and in this country — was during World War II, with a blip in the Korean War. Then 20 years ago, Oregon Resources showed up on the South Coast, looking to mine high-grade chromite ore.
Industrial Minerals Corporation LTD., based in Australia, founded Oregon Resources in 1989, specifically to mine black sands for chromite, zircon and garnet in forestlands near Coos Bay — through a one-of-a-kind chromite mining operation.
Over ages, nature eroded the Klamath Mountains down rivers to the sea, and longshore currents then swept the tiny sand sediments northward, forming the mineral-bearing placer deposits found between Seven Devils and the mouth of the Rogue River. Over time the subduction zone has uplifted the paleo-beaches two to three miles inland and 600 feet above sea level, to where they currently rest and where Oregon Resources will be mining. There are no other beach chromite placer deposits of this sort in the world, Drew said.
Other countries are mining gigantic hard-rock chromite deposits, both over and underground, by crushing, drilling and blasting. That type of mining results in angular and jagged rocks, whereas the grains along the South Coast are smaller and rounded.
“Our grains are very unique and marketable because Mother Nature has rounded every chromite grain,” Drew said.
Because of its hardness and resistance to heat, the chromite Oregon Resources is exporting predominantly will be used as a metal in making molds for automotive and other heavy equipment parts. Garnet is a water-jet cutting medium, and zircon is foundry sand often used for tile glazing.
Montana has an underground hard-rock chromite deposit, but it’s not economical to mine because of its low grade and limited transportation access without waterway.
There are several hard-rock garnet mines operating in Idaho and one in New York, and a single zircon mine in northern Florida. The zircon mine, which is at Trail Ridge, also is a beach deposit and has been in use since 1948.
Most chromite, over 90 percent, is converted into ferrochromium, which is used predominantly for stainless steel, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
While America may import 100 percent of its chromite ore, it is still the world’s second leading producer of stainless steel. Oregon Resources will export roughly 130,000 tons of finished product a year by water, rail and truck. One-third will go to markets in Australia and Asian countries, such as China and Indonesia; one-third to Europe; and one-third will stay in the U.S. The chromite sold domestically will be divided between companies in Oregon, including ESCO Corporation based in Portland, and Illinois. All the zircon is being sold to a Wisconsin manufacturer, said Dan Smith, Oregon Resources chief operating officer.
Between 50 and 60 percent of Oregon Resources’ product has already been reserved, Smith said.
Chromite production has historically revved up in times of war, as it’s used to make hardened steels and in the interior of large gun barrels, said USGS chromium specialist John Papp. During World War II, the U.S. government, as well as, Humphreys Gold Corp. and Krome Corp. ran mining operations in Coos County.
Experts have known for years there still are heavy mineral deposits of chromite and zircon in the Seven Devils area, said Jeff Kroft, a specialist with the Oregon Department of State Lands.
In the late 1980s, DSL and USGS did test drilling offshore to evaluate the potential of mining these deposits. But around that time, the Oregon Legislature passed an act forbidding the state from leasing any offshore areas within Oregon’s territorial sea.
“After that everything came to a standstill,” Kroft said.
Oregon Resources has signed mining agreements with Weyerhaeuser Co. and Kimberly Clark Corp. and is in negotiations with the county. The firm already has at least 20 years of reserves, but hopes its stay will be extended even longer.
“Hopefully, this will be a catalyst,” Smith said. “We want to be here as long as possible.”
(Staff Writer Meghan Walsh can be reached by calling 541-269-1222, ext. 235; or by e-mailing to email@example.com.)