Geologists say northeast Iowa could have $1 trillion worth of precious metals underground

Published: Feb. 6, 2019 at 8:54 PM CST
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There could be one trillion dollars underneath Northeast Iowa right now- at least that is what some area geologists believe could be the case.

Geologists with the Iowa Geological Survey, which partners with the University of Iowa, want to dig deeper to see if Iowa is home to a trove of precious metals, like copper, nickel, and platinum group elements (platinum, palladium, iridium, etc.) thousands of feet underground.

The Northeast Iowa Intrusive Complex is a formation that spreads through ten counties here in eastern Iowa- and geologists like Ryan Clark with the Iowa Geological Survey want permission to start drilling in a small portion of that area.

Clark says the hole would be small in diameter, but deep. The hole itself would only be, at ground-level, about one foot in diameter. But that hole would go more than two thousand feet underground.

"You can drill really far with a relatively small bit, and the technology is there," Clark said.

The project was originally part of the United States Geological Survey's fiscal planning, but due to recent budget cuts, the drilling project in northeast Iowa never happened. If the project were to take place, the Iowa Geological Survey would need $500,000; the most likely source for that funding would come from state government.

"Then we would start to analyze them and try to get as much information as we can to help us paint that picture of: this is what the Northeast Iowa Intrusive Complex is," Clark said.

Clark argues the money could end up well spent, bringing back a bigger return on the investment for the hole, opening a large financial gain for the state.

But others argue the risk may outweigh the reward.

"So they found minerals down, pick a number: 2,000, 3,000 feet... so? They're there, then what?" asked Larry Stone, a concerned citizen in Clayton County. Stone serves as a member on the Clayton County Conservation Board, but emphasized in this instance, he is not speaking on behalf of the board, but representing his own opinions.

Stone says any kind of drilling project is a cause for concern for him- regardless of the potential value underground.

"It's not a free trillion dollars down there," Stone says. "It's going to be a cost to get them."

But Clark says the majority of the costs could come from an interested mining company- if it turned out to be something worth pursuing from the company's standpoint.

"If this information looks like it's going to show some promise, then a mineral exploration company would take that information and start doing their own exploration," Clark said.

Stone described himself as "skeptical."

"Naturally the companies that want to mine say: 'oh yeah, we can do this,'" Stone said. "How many times have we heard that before?"

Stone says the potential mining poses an environmental concern- and could ruin the state's water supply for generations: the Jordan Aquifer.

"Hypothetically, if in piercing that aquifer, they polluted it, that could be thousands of years of pollution in that aquifer," Stone said.

But Clark says that likely would not be the case in a mining project like the one that would happen, if a mining company were to go in and extract the metals.

"This mining is happening beneath all of Iowa's aquifers," Clark said. "None of these minerals are going to be where we get our ground water from."

Clark says in a perfect world, people would not see any large projects occurring for about ten years, and their biggest hurdle still remains securing funding to complete the research.

But Stone wants to ensure the potential hazards are addressed sooner rather than later.

"[That way] if we do try to harvest these minerals in the future, that we get smart to do it in an environmentally sensitive way," Stone said.