Our lives today are dependent on some Earth elements very few people ever think about. Rare earth elements (REE) are basically 17 rarely found elements on Earth, and in the Periodic Table, they are sort of lumped together at the end of the periodic Table with the atomic numbers 57 through 71.
They have strange sounding names, like lanthanum, cerium, neodymium, praseodymium, samarium, terbium, to name just a few. But because of society’s dependence on these elements, we have blindly overlooked the human suffering and environmental devastation being created in mining them.
Rare earth elements are vital to just about everything we hold dear, from cell phones to computers, and automobiles to state-of-the-art energy efficient refrigerators. There is one REE mine in the United States. Constantine Karayannopoulos is chairman of Molycorp. The mine in Mountain Pass, California has been in operation for 60 years.
Karayannopoulos says, “Next time your phone vibrates, think of us because the vibration motor is a small motor that contains a tiny neodymium magnet in it.” He further expands on the uses of rare earths, citing their use in cars in the form of catalytic converters, sensors and hybrid car batteries.
Where are rare earth elements found?
Rare earths are really not that rare. They can be found in most people’s backyards, inside ordinary-looking rocks, but the amount is truly tiny. There are only a few places on Earth that have high enough concentration of the elements to make them worth mining. There are mines in Canada, Brazil and a few other countries, but China is the world’s largest producer.
There are over 850 known deposits of rare earth elements globally. Many of these materials possess special qualities, including magnetic, catalytic and luminescent properties. Strangely, in trying to create a “green technology,” we have made these elements an essential part of the process.
The Balyun-Obo Mine in Baotou City, Inner Mongolia
But mining there elements is anything but clean. In Baiyun-Obo, a mining town in the west of Inner Mongolia, China. 95 percent of the world’s REEs are mined, The mine is under the jurisdiction of Baotou City, about 75 miles to the south. The mine produces around 120,000 tons of rare earth metals a year.
The city of Baotou is the largest industrial site in inner Mongolia, and to see the city, one would never realize there is a flip-side to life just down the road. With a population exceeding 2.65 million people, it is hard to imagine that in 1950, there were only 97,500 people. But the minerals, and the world’s lust for more and more of them has driven the influx of people to the region.
In 1958, the Baotou Iron and Steel company started producing REEs, forming the Balyun-Obo Mine. At that time, there was little or no pollution, and cattle grazed in pastures next to fields of watermelons, aubergines, and tomatoes. Today, the pastoral scenes have been replaced by abandoned houses, fields gone to weeds and smoke-belching factories. You won’t see any farm animals anymore. They have all died.
The Baotou lake was started in 1958, a pond for the waste-water produced from mining the rare earth minerals from the open-pit mine. For every ton of REEs taken from the ground, there are 340,000 to 420,000 cubic feet of waste gas containing dust concentrate, hydrofluoric acid, sulfur dioxide, and sulfuric acid released. Additionally, approximately 2,600 cubic feet of acidic waste-water and about a ton of radioactive waste residue are also produced.
The waste-water has created a gigantic lake of poisonous sludge, reeking of sulfur and deadly toxic chemicals. Tim Maughan went to see Lake Baotou on assignment with the BBC. His report described the lake as an “alien environment,” and one that depressed and terrified him. The pictures he brought back attest to this, and something even more important.
The pictures show us the seamier side of an industry that drives our technological advances today. We are so quick to condemn petroleum companies, power plants and anything else we can think of for contributing to the pollutiion of our world, but we stop at condemning anything that might affect our need for better smartphones, tablets, flat screen Tvs and hybrid automobiles. It does beg the question of where do we draw the line?