China’s rare earth mining catastropheBy Asia Sentinel Jun 22, 2011 2:50PM UTC
A dramatic lesson as the rest of the world gears up to replace the falling Chinese supply, reports Asia Sentinel
Last December, China’s Commerce Minister, Chen Deming, said the country “has no choice” but to take stringent measures to clean up its rare earths industry, placing export controls on some of the world’s most vital elements.
Beijing cut exports for the first half of 2011 by 35 percent, following a 72 percent reduction for the second half of last year. While most of the attention in the world’s press centered on what was regarded as a strategic decision, Chinese officials said they could no longer afford the damage to their environment. With one third of the world’s rare earth reserves, the country at that point was delivering 95 percent of the world’s exports of 17 different rare earth substances, which go into a wide and growing variety of crucial industries from computer to catalytic converters to wind farms to many more.
The fact is that the country faces massive damage from mining and smelting. Over the last two or three years China has begun to face up to the fact that the rare earths mining industry is beset by widespread illegal mining, virtually complete lack of worker safety guidelines or measures, which has wrecked a broad swath of the country and left thousands of miners suffering from a variety of deadly diseases with pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease the most prevalent. Doing something about the destruction has become imperative.
Google “China rare earths environmental damage” and hundreds of stories will appear. The industry in China produces five times the waste gas, including fluorine and sulfur dioxide as the total flared off annually by all miners and oil refiners in the United States, according to a speech by Xu Xu, the chairman of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Metals, Minerals, and Chemicals Importers and Exporters in December in Beijing, who was quoted in a variety of publications. In addition to that, Xu was quoted as saying, the industry produces 13 billion meters of gas and 25 million tons of wastewater filled with cancer-causing heavy metals including cadmium and others.
These are some issues that are being considered in Australia, California and Malaysia as the world scrambles for additional supplies to replace those China is shutting down. Excluding China, global industries will require 55,000 to 60,000 metric tons of rare earth metals in 2011, with a third to a half coming from China. There is always the question in China whether environmental rules will do any good. Some authorities estimate that fully half the rare earth metals being produced in China are smuggled out of the country after being mixed with other ores to disguise them. Nonetheless, the Ministry of Environmental Protection announced that further emissions caps for 15 types of pollutants related to rare earth mining and smelting will go into effect on Oct. 1, probably constricting the supply more .
Cindy Hurst, an analyst for the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office in Fort Leavenworth quoted the Chinese Society of Rare Earths in an article for the website The Cutting Edge that ”Every ton of rare earth produced (in China) generates approximately 8.5 kilograms of fluorine and 13 kg of dust; and using concentrated sulfuric acid high temperature calcination techniques to produce approximately one ton of calcined rare earth ore generates 9,600 to 12,000 cubic meters of waste gas containing dust concentrate, hydrofluoric acid, sulfur dioxide, and sulfuric acid, approximately 75 cubic meters of acidic wastewater plus about one ton of radioactive waste residue (containing water).”
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