Melissa Sanderson: Elemental Leader Revolutionizing Mining for a Greener Future

Melissa Sanderson | President
Melissa Sanderson | President

In the fast-paced world of mining, where the extraction of valuable resources fuels progress and innovation, unwavering commitment to sustainability and responsible practices is crucial for long-term success. This includes addressing environmental safety concerns, leveraging technology, engaging with indigenous communities and redefining HR’s role in promoting sustainability. Leaders play a crucial role in driving this transformation and ensuring a sustainable future for the mining industry.

Melissa Sanderson, President of American Rare Earths, is one such leader who has carved a remarkable path in the mining sector, spearheading efforts to unlock the potential of rare earth elements while prioritizing environmental stewardship and community engagement.

The mining industry plays a critical role in providing the raw materials necessary for technological advancements in various sectors, including renewable energy, defense and telecommunications. Within this landscape, rare earth elements have emerged as strategic resources, with their unique properties enabling the development of cutting-edge technologies. However, the extraction and processing of rare earths present challenges in terms of environmental impact and supply chain security.

As the leader of American Rare Earths, Melissa brings her wealth of knowledge and experience to the forefront, driving the company’s mission to explore and develop strategic technology mineral resources. American Rare Earths, an Australian exploration company, is dedicated to discovering and harnessing rare earth elements vital to the advancement of sustainable technologies. With a keen focus on responsible mining practices and community engagement, Melissa leads the charge in positioning American Rare Earths as a pioneer in the industry.

Under Melissa’s leadership, American Rare Earths embraces a holistic approach, integrating sustainability and social responsibility into every facet of its operations. From the early stages of exploration to the ultimate extraction and processing of rare earth materials, the company strives to minimize environmental impact and promote positive engagement with local communities.

Melissa’s deep understanding of the sector, coupled with her commitment to sustainable practices, has garnered recognition and positioned her as a prominent figure in the mining industry. Through her leadership at American Rare Earths, Melissa is revolutionizing the way rare earth elements are mined and processed, ensuring a greener and more sustainable future for generations to come.

Let’s delve into Melissa’s background and expertise in rare earth elements, her vision for American Rare Earths and the company’s strategic initiatives aimed at responsible mining, innovation and growth.

Vision for American Rare Earths

American Rare Earths (ARR) is on a mission to become the leading supplier of rare earth materials crucial for the United States’ economic transformation and national security. Under Melissa’s guidance, ARR envisions itself as a vital national resource, empowering the US to regain control over strategic elements necessary to build a greener and more robust economy, while also supporting the durability and growth of national defense infrastructure.

At the heart of ARR’s vision lies their flagship project, the Halleck Creek mine in Wyoming. This project, once operational, will not only provide employment opportunities for skilled workers in Wyoming, including those transitioning from the coal industry but also foster the development of a new generation of highly skilled chemists and scientists needed for the successful processing of rare earth materials.

With low penalty elements such as uranium and thorium, coupled with a dedicated and growing workforce, ARR is positioned for success. After this, Melissa mentions, “Especially considering our deposits are located in mining-friendly jurisdictions and that we know already that we have over 1.5 billion tons of total rare earths – and that is only 25% of our total asset in Wyoming alone.” Additionally, ARR’s La Paz project in Arizona, rich in scandium (this element which is used in many military applications), has the potential to support the defense industry infrastructure in the state.

Living It Up

Melissa says, “My current incarnation as President of American Rare Earths actually is my third professional experience.” Her remarkable journey in the mining industry began after an illustrious 21-year career in the United States Foreign Service. Her transition to the mining sector occurred when she joined Phelps Dodge (PD), a renowned US copper mining company, to contribute to their copper-cobalt project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Subsequently, Freeport McMoRan, a leading US gold/copper mining company, acquired Phelps Dodge and Melissa assumed the role of Vice President for Africa for Freeport while stationed in the DRC.

Later, she became the global head of ESG strategy for Freeport at their headquarters in Phoenix. After retiring from Freeport in 2020, Melissa joined the Board of American Rare Earths, immersing herself in the rare earth segment of the mining industry. In January 2023, Melissa was appointed President of the company, tasked with bringing to market what is potentially the largest rare earth deposit in North America.

A Drop in The Ocean

In an industry marred by environmental and social impacts, Melissa’s commitment to sustainable and responsible mining practices is a cornerstone of ARR’s operations. Environmental and social impacts associated with rare earths extraction are given utmost consideration.

ARR places a strong emphasis on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) principles, surpassing expected standards in site remediation even during early exploration stages. Melissa says, “ESG is a core value at American Rare Earths. Even in our early exploration stages, our geologists ensured that the remediation of our drill sites exceeded the expected standards.”

With an eye to the future, ARR collaborates with esteemed institutions such as Lawrence Livermore Laboratories, the Critical Materials Institute and a consortium of US universities to research cleaner and greener processing methods for rare earth materials. Through these endeavors, ARR aims to develop sustainable, water-frugal and cost-effective methodologies, leveraging genetically engineered bacteria, proteins, or enzymes. These sustainable and cost-effective methodologies, if successful, will revolutionize rare earth processing.

Moreover, recognizing the significance of water conservation in the drought-prone Western US, ARR is very conscious and plans to incorporate cutting-edge technologies into their mining and processing facilities, striving for a closed water loop.

Turning a New Leaf Every Day

Melissa shares, “We are a small but enthusiastic and dedicated team.” Within this small yet dedicated team at American Rare Earths, Melissa fosters a culture of continuous improvement and operational excellence. The company’s size allows innovation to flourish, encouraging camaraderie between managers and staff.

Notably, three young women on the geological team bring fresh ideas from their education, challenging existing methodologies and introducing new technologies to the table. Melissa expresses, the ideas of these women not only the latest ideas from their education but also their inquisitive natures and do not hesitate.

Melissa says, “We recognize and encourage their contributions through increased operational authority and by acting on their recommendations.” Their contributions are acknowledged and rewarded. For instance, a portable and reliable field-testing equipment suggested by one of the women was purchased, further enhancing operational efficiency. As American Rare Earths continues to grow, this open and collaborative approach will expand, with junior personnel rising to managerial positions and contributing to the company’s success.

Nip and Tuck

Melissa says, “As we see with the current (July 2023) announcement by China regarding restricting exports of gallium and germanium, price volatility induced by unforeseen external decisions is a very real risk. Likewise, inflation has caught many companies around the world by surprise.” The rare earths market is susceptible to price volatility and external decisions that can disrupt stability.

However, under Melissa’s adept leadership, the company navigates these challenges by leveraging studies and projections on potential pricing and market demand. Melissa acknowledges the risks associated with price swings and inflation. This foresight enables both Melissa and the financial team to cushion the effects of price swings. To mitigate these challenges, American Rare Earths relies on comprehensive studies and projections to anticipate and cushion the effects of price fluctuations. The company aims to establish long-term contracts once production is nearer, providing stability and predictability in demand from future clients.

Moreover, ARR aims to establish long-term contracts as they move closer to production, mitigating market volatility and ensuring stable operations with predictable demand from their future clients.

Where There’s Will, There’s A Way

Rare earths play a vital role in various industries, including technology, renewable energy and defense. Melissa strategically positions American Rare Earths to leverage these opportunities and drive growth. She says, “The sheer scale of our Halleck Creek project is difficult to underestimate in terms of impact and value on future markets.”

Located in Wyoming and Arizona, American Rare Earths can identify and collaborate with potential partners and end-users, such as semiconductors, electric vehicles (EV), solar companies and defense industry material manufacturers in Arizona. Exemplifying the same, Melissa shares, “For instance, there are significant clusters of semiconductor, EV and solar companies in Arizona for whom we might be able to serve as a supplier of choice, given our extremely short and secure supply chain.”

She also adds, “Likewise, Arizona is home to a large cluster of companies manufacturing materials for the defense industry. It’s important to note that because rare earths are essential to permanent metal magnets they are literally in everything in various incarnations–items from cell phones to rockets incorporate different rare earth elements.”

Above Board in Global Trade

In the complex realm of global trade and regulations, American Rare Earths maintains a competitive edge by focusing primarily on being a strategic supplier for the US market. By powering the transformation to a greener and cleaner economy, ARR bolsters America’s national security. This strategic vision allows ARR to navigate global trade complexities while maintaining stability and competitiveness.

Ace in the Hole

Melissa emphasizes the safety and well-being of employees working in rare earths mining and processing. Technological advancements in equipment and methodologies play a crucial role in protecting employees. Melissa shares, “As we develop our project we will continue using the best possible technologies.”

The company’s corporate culture places safety as the top priority, initiating all meetings, even in office settings, with a safety share. This shared commitment to safety, coupled with a strong sense of purpose and collaboration, fosters a positive work culture at American Rare Earths. Melissa defined the work culture at the company, as she mentions, “When each member of the team understands their importance–in building an important project, in keeping each other safe, in growing and learning together–the culture is inherently positive.”

The Extra Mile

Innovation and entrepreneurship are encouraged and supported within American Rare Earths. Continuous education and training opportunities are provided to team members, allowing them to constantly improve their professional competency. ARR is committed to establishing programs that facilitate continuous learning, both through classroom settings (live or virtual) and professional conferences.

This commitment not only encourages innovative thinking but also enables free-flowing dialogue and creative discussions, leading to operational improvements and development initiatives this fosters ideas. ARR may also introduce a bonus system to recognize and reward outstanding ideas as the company’s financial capabilities permit.

Becoming A Self-Made Woman

Diversity, equity and inclusion are essential values at American Rare Earths. Melissa expresses, “I’m very proud to say that 75% of our professional geological staff are women.”

She also adds, “You just asked me earlier about innovation–one of our female employees introduced the company to technology new to us, a handheld device capable of producing a reliable evaluation of the composition of a rock sample.” The contributions of these talented women, such as introducing cost-saving technologies and handheld devices for enhanced decision-making, have propelled ARR forward regarding the areas most suited for a detailed follow-up examination.

Melissa says, “And of course, ARR does have a woman President. I do believe that the mining industry as a whole is committed to diversity–but particularly in the US there is a shortage of workers at the moment which impacts companies across the board.” Additionally, the industry doesn’t have a good reputation with women or minorities–so there is a lot of work still to be done to create visionary woman leaders in the sector.

Aspirations Propelling Forwards

Melissa’s long-term goal for American Rare Earths is to establish the company as the largest, not just one of the largest, suppliers of rare earth materials in North America. With prudent haste, adherence to requirements and expectations and adaptability to market needs, ARR aims to fulfill this ambitious vision.

Melissa says, “The long-term goal is building a state-of-the-art, ecologically sound resource to benefit all concerned: the local communities near us, our workers, our shareholders, the States in which we operate and of course the US as a whole.” By continuously advancing their projects and adapting to market dynamics, American Rare Earths under Melissa’s leadership is poised for a bright and prosperous future, contributing significantly to the US’s economy and national security. Melissa mentions, “ARR has a great future, and I’m proud to be playing a part in this very important project.”