Rare earth mining has a host of uses, from rechargeable batteries to fluorescent lighting. But the use of rare earth metals and alloys extract a heavy price on the environment. And the Chinese should know it best. They produce around 85% of these elements that are indispensable for a host of uses. But the extraction has come at a heavy price on the environment, though efforts are underway to minimize the damages.
One city in China, Baotou, accounts for half of the output of the group of 17 elements that make up the rare earth metals. Their application in modern industry is mind-boggling. They are indispensable in the manufacture of GPS satellites, lasers, computer parts, lighting, magnets, etc.
But rare is a misnomer. Unlike gold, these metals are freely available under the crust. But they are rarely available in a free state. This makes it difficult and expensive to extract and separate them. And the toll they extract on the environment is heavy.
Rare Earth Mining: The Killing Fields
A visit to the Xinguang Number One Village shows the devastation that rare earth mining inflicts on the local environment. It is home to vast numbers of tailing ponds, containing material dumped after the process of separation. Refuse is dumped into such ponds to separate the solid wastes from the water.
The mines are owned by Baotou Steel and were built under Mao Zedong in the 1950s. These ponds lack proper lining and the toxic water percolates into the ground to the nearby Yellow River, a major drinking water source for North China.
Grazing animals have died out in the surrounding areas. So has the cabbage fields. It turned really bad in the 1990s when production went into full throttle. Cancer is common. And the damage it does to teeth is obvious.
Profiting From Low Costs And Cheap Labor
The factories are near the mines. Production is high and the costs are kept down with an utter disregard for the environment. The production of minerals through rare earth mining produced 120,000 tons of various rare earth metals in 2018. In comparison, the US produced just 15,000 metric tons.
Jiangxi, Fujian, West Sichuan, and Inner Mongolia have vast rare earth mining facilities. And they have moved to Africa in the last 15 years, gaining total control of the mines in exchange for infrastructure projects. Countries including Namibia, Tanzania, Kenya, Malawi have vast peralkaline and carbonite deposits that are being mined. They have also pumped in money in Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo for building highways and a data center.
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China has also set its eyes on Zambia, Cameroon, Tanzania, and Cameroon, countries economically vulnerable to the predatory tactics of the Chinese.
Tanzania has a vast deposit of praseodymium, which is vital in the military industry for the manufacture of precision-guided weapons.
China has also ventured into rare earth mining as far as Greenland. And the dynamics of scale have ensured that China has a stronghold on this mining sector.
Polluting The Environment Through Unregulated Mining
Rare earth mining takes a heavy toll on the environment. And it is primarily due to both the extraction processes that are followed.
Rare earth mining involves taking out the topsoil and moving it to leach ponds. Toxic chemicals like ammonium chloride and ammonium sulfate are added in huge quantities to separate the metals. Both these chemicals severely pollute the air and seep into the groundwater. The process also contributes to topsoil erosion. Processing just a ton of rare earth throws up over 2,000 tons of toxic wastes.
The second process in rare earth mining is just as damaging to the environment. Holes are drilled into the earth to insert rubber hoses and PVC pipes that pump in chemicals. This helps to flush out the earth in the form of slurry. This slurry is then poured into the leaching ponds that extract the rare-earth metals.
These pipes and sundry other materials are left in the soil and cause equal damage as the first process. The ripped earth remains exposed, the topsoil gone. The areas become barred and prone to heavy erosion.
The heavily toxic metals continue to leach into the water cycle through the leaching ponds in these abandoned mines. Once the miners have left nothing ever grows back in these areas.
Rains cause the chemicals to seep into surrounding waterways.
Vast areas of fertile land have been laid waste the topsoil and made it inappropriate for farming or grazing.
Cleaning Up The Mess
There have been efforts to shut down smaller mines that cause the most pollution. But there has been a general lack of efforts in this regard. Two decades of unregulated mining and lax environmental regulation cannot be wished away in a day.
The poison has spread from Guangdong in the south of China to the Mongolian border in the north, the nation has struggled to get rid of the mess of unregulated mining. It could take decades before things are restored to normal. It is a time-consuming and expensive project.
The major problem lies in a genuine effort. China couldn’t care much as long as any industry brings in revenue on a massive scale. They have always overlooked environmental and labor issues, especially when working in foreign countries. So these African nations are at risk from the unscrupulous Chinese.
Even major downstream cities like Ganzhou (population of 8 million) are facing the problem of water pollution.
Alternative Means And Methods For Rare Earth Mining And Excavation
There are alternative processes to extract rare earth that does away with the need to harm the environment. An innovative method has been developed by Harvard University that uses a mild acidic solution to separate the metals. Purdue University researchers have also devised a method to remove rare earth from coal ash that is low cost and clean.
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The Future Of Clean Rare Earth Mining
Several drastic steps have to be taken if we are to move away from the environmental damage caused by rare earth mining.
One way could be for developing products that are alternatives to these metals and alloys. So a decrease in demand for the natural product would lessen the reliance on the mined product. Honda has moved forward in this matter and their hybrid cars are being developed that rely less on these rare earth metals.
There could be efforts to develop better and greener ways to extract rare earth metals by causing minimum destruction to the environment.
Areas already damaged by rare earth mining could be lessened by pumping in fresh water and flushing out the toxic elements that have percolated into the groundwater.
Enacting Tough Measures
China has also been enacting laws to halt further damage to the environment caused by rare earth mining. Companies have been ordered to upgrade the equipment used to match international environmental requirements. But they are also wary that enacting tough measures to protect the environment could raise costs and make the industry unviable.