Can the rest of the world learn from the failures and environmental damages caused by Chinese rare earth mining?
Rare earth metals are found in an ever-increasing number of products we use every day, and there are major environmental concerns and serious health issues associated with the extractions of these metals.
In an effort to educate myself, I read a number of different articles and studies until I found one that really described in detail rare earths, environmental impacts, applications of rare earths and so on. The study, done by a Germany company in January of 2011, is entitled “Study on Rare Earths and Their Recycling.”
Here is a general overview of the environmental impacts found in this study:
The conclusion on environmental aspects of rare earth mining and processing begins with the sentence, “The rare earth mining shows high environmental risks.” The main concerns are the tailings. The tailings are basically the mining waste and are a mixture of unrecoverable metals, minerals, flotation chemicals, waste water and so on. These tailings are released into a storage area. These storage areas are exposed to multiple risks like overflow due to storm water, poor construction, emissions of heavy metals or seismic activity.
The study goes on to explain the serious environmental damages in the Chinese rare earth mines and their surrounding areas. According to the Chinese government, they intend to reduce the environmental damage by installing environmental technologies in the large mines and by reducing the numerous small, illegal mines that probably have no environmental technologies at all. China also aims at higher efficiencies in mining and processing and is running some research projects on a sustainable rare earth economy.
The most advanced mines outside of China are the Mountain Pass mine near the Mojave National Preserve in California and Mount Weld in Australia. The study notes these mines will provide environmental protection systems, which will significantly reduce the environmental damage compared to outdated techniques, if the management and the monitoring are conducted responsibly by the authorities and the operators.
A quick side note: The Mountain Pass mine was closed in 2002 due to salty, radioactive water (from the tailings) that kept leaking from the waste evaporation ponds. Active mining at Mountain Pass started again in December of 2010.
The study warns that “the global pressure for a steady rare earth supply might lead to further new mines outside of China with inacceptable environmental standards.” And, the study points to one example of potential concern: a plan for joint mining of uranium and rare earths in the Kvanefjeld region of southern Greenland. The main concern is the tailings, because the mining company intends to store them in a natural lake with connection to the ocean.
Another side note: Greenland Minerals and Energy is an Australia-based company that is planning to mine in Greenland. GME is the owner of the Kvanefjeld mine, which is home to the world’s second largest rare earths deposit and the sixth largest uranium deposit. According to an article by Australian Mining, “With Greenland Government’s recent decision to fast-track mining projects in the region, the country’s mining sector is set to flourish.”
This is clearly a subject we all need to be aware of, especially since rare earth metals are key components in everything from laptop computers, cell phones and CFLs, to hybrid cars and wind turbines. It also makes recycling these products even more critical.
If you want to read the full study, you can download it here.