Tomorrow, March 15, the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC) was scheduled to meet in Washington, D.C., to discuss the designs for several U.S. Mint coin and medal products. Mother Nature had other ideas, however, and slammed the Eastern seaboard with a nasty winter storm that has shut down cities, airlines, and public transportation in D.C. and elsewhere, so the meeting has been postponed.
One of the items to be discussed was an all-new palladium bullion coin. The idea has been around for years, making its first significant waves on September 22, 2010, when Rep. Dennis Rehberg (R-Mont.) introduced HR 6616, the American Eagle Palladium Bullion Coin Act. A representative of the district that holds Stillwater Mine, the only domestic producer of palladium, he’d introduced similar legislation in prior years. His district’s interests had grown increasingly serious: in July 2009, General Motors had declared bankruptcy and canceled its contract with Stillwater, from which GM bought precious metal to use in catalytic converters. This time, Rehberg’s palladium-bullion bill got some traction.
The bill passed in the House on September 29 and the Senate on November 30, then was signed into law (PL 111-303) by the president on December 14. One provision of the law was that a reputable, independent third party must demonstrate that enough demand existed for palladium bullion coins that such a program would impose no net cost on taxpayers. The Mint tapped CPM Group to perform the market analysis, which commenced in 2012.
The proposed coins were to bear a legal-tender face value of $25 and contain one troy ounce of .9995 palladium. The obverse and reverse designs would bring together high-relief likenesses of two Adolph A. Weinman classics: the obverse of the Winged Liberty dime (original diameter 17.9 mm) and the reverse of the 1907 American Institute of Architects medal (originally 55 mm). At the Treasury secretary’s discretion, Uncirculated and Proof versions could also be minted; if so, to the extent possible, each year’s surface treatment would differ from that of the previous year. The metal would, if possible, would be sourced from “palladium mined from natural deposits in the United States, or in a territory or possession of the United States, within 1 year after the month in which the ore from which it is derived was mined.” Other sources could be used, if U.S. sources proved unfeasible.
When CPM Group released its market report in 2013, it said that what little demand existed for palladium bullion coins was being more than adequately filled by Canadian Maple Leafs in that metal. Proof and Uncirculated palladium American Eagles, however, could conceivably turn a profit—which was a moot point, since the whole program hinged on the feasibility of the bullion strikes.
Then, in December 2015, the Fix America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act) became Pub. L. No. 114-94. Section 73001 of that law struck down the requirement for a market study. In early 2016, the Mint contacted the American Institute of Architects for permission to make detailed digital scans of the original, 14-inch plaster model for Adolph Weinman’s gold medal reverse. The Mint’s acting quality manager, Ron Harrigal, joined the CCAC meeting a few months later, on June 27, to discuss the ongoing work.
Palladium, he reported, is a new material for the U.S. Mint; it has distinct properties that require different treatment than the metals they’re used to handling. One unfamiliar quality is its relatively high reactivity, which makes it useful in catalytic converters, its primary industrial application. In Harrigal’s words, “It picks up debris a lot, so once we get it into production, there’s going to be an experience there.” With this and other issues in mind, Mint staff had reached out to the Royal Canadian Mint, one of the few world mints actively making palladium coins, for advice.
Another major issue is the supply chain. The Stillwater operation in Montana would seem like a logical choice, but the Mint contacted multiple vendors to discuss the project, in the hope of securing more than one supplier. While these discussions were taking place, the Mint experimented with some leftover, quarter-size palladium planchets from an unrelated test project in 2005. It soon became clear that they didn’t meet the necessary specifications—which, in Harrigal’s words, are “very similar to our platinum program: very fine grain structure, a certain hardness, a certain surface roughness [of] finish.” Harrigal predicted that several iterations of work with the suppliers would likely be needed to get the planchets right.
A related part of the process is determining the coins’ size, which (fortunately) was not specified by the law. The planchets obviously need to be thick enough to produce high-relief coins, and as Harrigal pointed out, both the obverse and reverse designs involve “a lot of real estate”—a lot of metal be pushed up above the surface. At the time of the CCAC meeting in June 2016, the Mint was anticipating a diameter somewhere between 32.7 and 38.1 millimeters.
More will be known about the specifications of the new palladium bullion coins after the CCAC’s next meeting, which has been rescheduled for Tuesday, March 21, 2017, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (Eastern)—assuming, of course, that Mother Nature has no conflicting plans. ❑