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Mining Zircon from Ancient Georgia Beaches

In the sands of ancient beach deposits in southeast Georgia, Southern Ionics Incorporated (SII) is mining zircon sand, which is processed and used in important medical applications, such as artificial hips and knees, as well as in home dialysis units for kidney patients. Zirconium is also used as a coating on ship propellers and gas turbine blades, and for cladding nuclear fuel rods.

The Charlton and Brantley counties’ zircon deposits are among the few commercially and economically viable sources in the United States. These deposits are the sole source of domestic ore for SII’s zirconium oxychloride crystal production. Prior to the opening of the Georgia mine, nearly 100 percent of zirconium oxychloride crystal came from non-domestic sources, principally China.

The Georgia mine processes 4 million tons of sand per year, yielding 13,000 tons of zircon sand. SII utilizes an environmentally friendly mining process to extract zircon sand with minimal land impacts and speedy reclamation, affecting roughly 120 acres annually, with a total impact over ten to eleven years of less than 2,000 acres. The project has an active footprint of approximately sixty acres at any given time, but this footprint moves as new pits are opened and old ones are reclaimed. The top ten to twenty feet of surface sand are disturbed, and 97 percent of the material is returned to the mined area.

A fleet of Caterpillar machines work in production and reclamation for SII. A Cat® 349 excavator loads 740E articulated dump trucks. D7 and D8 bulldozers for earth moving and a 12M2 motor grader are also on site, along with a smaller 329 excavator for rim ditches, a 420F backhoe loader, and a Cat® 289 skid loader for clean-up work. A Cat® TL 1255 telehandler is also utilized extensively around the mine site.

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