As of 2016, the United States’ demand for rare-earth elements depended on imports, mostly from China. Rare earths are a class of critical minerals, 17 in number, that are used in many technologies such as smartphones, medical treatments, wind turbines and high-performance defense-industry equipment.
Recently, politicians from America’s coal country with the help of researchers, have moved to break that dependency. They hope to re-purpose old mines to produce rare earths, thus stimulating new economic growth in places like West Virginia. But we must learn from China’s example and avoid devastating environmental consequences, which are costing China billions of dollars to correct.
The US uses about 15,000 tonnes of rare-earth elements every year, more than 700 tonnes of which go to defense. West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin recently told the Washington Examiner that America’s reliance on foreign sources for such a vital material is “a national security concern that must be addressed.”
China, which supplied 90-98% of the global rare-earth market in the last decade, may face a shortage as the country focuses on consolidation and cleanup. The time is ripe for the US to take over mining and processing of its own rare earths, and Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute, is spearheading the movement. With funding from the department of energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, Ziemkiewicz is running a pilot project to turn the interconnected coal mines across Appalachia into a processing facility for rare earths.
According to the WVWRI’s website, the purpose is to “develop a cost-effective and environmentally benign process to treat and recover REEs [rare earth elements] from sludges generated during treatment of acidic coal mine drainage (AMD).” The key words here are “environmentally benign.” If not managed carefully, resultant ponds of toxic sludge can poison the air, water, and ground, as happened in China’s rare-earth capital Baotou.
In 2012, China’s rare-earth industry drew world attention because of its destructive effects on the environment. Baotou, a town in Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region in northern China, is responsible for processing two-thirds of China’s rare-earth output.
Extraction involves hydro-metallurgical techniques and acid baths, resulting in tailing ponds full of toxic chemicals and even radioactive elements. The slurries of the mine 120 km north of Baotou contain about 65,000 tonnes of radioactive thorium.
The nearby area used to contain villages and farmland, but as pollution increased, people moved away. The population of the village of Xingguan Sancun dropped to 300 from 2,000 in 10 years. Air quality worsened, with residents inhaling air visibly thick with coal dust and chemicals such as sulphuric acid. Polluted soil and water killed crops and livestock.
With few means left to make a living, some of the remaining residents have taken to selling waste from the tailings pond still rich in minerals, despite potential legal trouble. Families’ health and livelihoods were destroyed so that this high-demand material could be sold cheaply to the rest of the world. And now China is paying the price.
In the last five years or so, the Chinese government has begun to enforce environmental regulations and crack down on black markets in the rare-earths industry, which in turn drove up the cost of operations and compliance. In one small-scale mining city alone, they spent the equivalent of more than US$5 billion on cleanup and rehabilitation.
In 2015, China embarked on a five-year plan that would see all of the rare-earths factories in the country consolidated into six state-owned enterprises by 2020. With the industry under tighter control, China plans to reduce pollutants and encourage rare-earths recycling and green applications.
Overall, the rare-earths industry is losing the country money, as the World Trade Organization urges China to keep prices low. In 2015, the industry lost US$116 million and was negative again last year. Thus, in China’s case, at least for the time being, the economic impact does little to make up for the environmental degradation.
When I first read about rare-earth mining, I was excited about the potential it could have for regions of America that rely on coal mining. Instead of resurrecting the coal industry, we could transition to something more modern that would use existing infrastructure, provide jobs, and support green energy by producing needed materials.
Rare earths may be the solution to America’s dying coal industry, but only if we prioritize environmental protection from the start, and closely monitor every step of the process. Otherwise, the environment and human cost of rare-earths mining will be too great to be worthwhile.
Liu, Hongqiao. “As China Adjusts for “True Cost” of Rare Earths, What Does It Mean for Decarbonization?” New Security Beat, 21 March 2017. https://www.newsecuritybeat.org/2017/03/china-begins-adjusting-true-cost-rare-earths-decarbonization/
“Rare-earth mining in China comes at a heavy cost for local villages.” The Guardian, 7 August 2012. Originally published in Le Monde. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/aug/07/china-rare-earth-village-pollution
Siciliano, John. “The coal industry could be in store for a ‘rare earth’ reboot.” Washington Examiner, 12 June 2017: 4-6. Print.