But the environmental damage already caused by rare earths mining in China could be irreversible, according to Wang Guozhen, a former vice president of the government-linked China Nonferrous Engineering and Research Institute.
“The money we earned from selling rare earths is not enough for repairing the environment … definitely not enough,” Wang told AFP.
For most of 2011, debate has raged in the REE sector over when China will move from exporter of REEs to the world community becoming an importer of at least some of the more valuable heavy rare earth oxides. At least one prominent Chinese official in a position to know, kicked off the debate with a guestimate of 2014-2015. Under China’s current 5 year plan, released last November, China committed itself to greatly improving the environment, and restructuring the worst of the polluting industries in China. In China’s teeming cities and super-cities, smog, air pollution, and water pollution had become severe problems too intrusive to ignore.
Below, how AFP recently covered probably the worst REE polluter in China.
China pays price for world’s rare earths addiction
Sun May 1, 1:17 am ET
BAOTOU, China (AFP) – Peasant farmer Wang Tao used to grow corn, potatoes and wheat within a stone’s throw of a dumping ground for rare earths waste until toxic chemicals leaked into the water supply and poisoned his land.
Farmers living near the 10-square-kilometre expanse in northern China say they have lost teeth and their hair has turned white while tests show the soil and water contain high levels of cancer-causing radioactive materials.
“We are victims. The tailings dam has contaminated us,” Wang, 60, told AFP at his home near Baotou city in Inner Mongolia, home to the world’s largest deposits of rare earths, which are vital in making many high-tech products.
China produces more than 95 percent of the world’s rare earths — 17 elements used in the manufacture of products ranging from iPods to flat-screen televisions and electric cars.
Two-thirds of that is processed in mineral-rich Baotou on the edge of the Gobi desert.
—- Baogang, which has rare earths and iron ore refineries stretching for about seven kilometres along a road in the area, did not respond to AFP requests for comment.
The Baogang Group at Baotou produce about 65% of China’s total REE production, and China supplies about 95% of global REE production. Recently China has been consolidating many of the lesser REE producers, and closing entirely most of the illegal unofficial producers in the rest of China. As the largest and probably the worst of the REE polluters, cleaning up the processes at Baotou and implementing modern concentration and refining methods, is going to greatly impact on Baotou’s output. While there is as yet no sign that is happening, it is very likely not to be too long delayed. Think months rather than years. Becoming an importer of some of the REEs in 2014-2015, starts to make a lot more sense. Now if only we could be absolutely certain there would be enough non Chinese HRE supply on-stream in the same timeframe.