At the heart of Baotou’s rare earths smelting, those environmental aspirations are blighted by pollution that can cut visibility around the main plants to a few dozen meters.
Su Wenqing, the Baotou industry official, wrote that companies there had dumped tailings, including mildly radioactive ore scrap, into local water supplies and farmland and the nearby Yellow River, “creating varying levels of radioactive pollution.”
Not to get too alarmist about it, but trouble has come to Inner Mongolia, home of Batou Iron and Steel Group, aka Baogang Group, producer of about 45% of China’s total production of Rare Earth Elements through their subsidiary Baotou Steel Rare Earth (Group) Hi Tech Co Ltd. No trouble has been reported at the mines at Bayan Obo, the largest rare earth mine in the world, but the mines there plus the refineries at Baotou are one of the biggest source of pollution in China, and a source of much potential local discontent. Lately China has begun to address the issue of industrial pollution there, especially ground water pollution. Given the importance or the region to world supply, this development needs careful watching.
Anger Over Protesters’ Deaths Leads to Intensified Demonstrations by Mongolians
By ANDREW JACOBS Published: May 30, 2011
HOHHOT, China — Ethnic Mongolians seething over the killings of two Mongolians by Han Chinese drivers took their anger to the streets of this capital of Inner Mongolia on Monday in a rare expression of antigovernment sentiment here.
—-Until now, the authorities have met the protests with a heavy-handed police response and highly publicized efforts to appease ethnic Mongolians, who make up less than 20 percent of the region’s population of 24 million and have long complained that migration of Han Chinese is diluting their language and culture.
—-“The root cause of the problem is not money,” Mr. Togochog said. “The problem is the conflict between the Mongolian people’s efforts to maintain their distinct culture and way of life and the Chinese authorities’ attempts to exploit the natural resources of the region.”
Occupying 12 percent of China’s land, the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region has become an increasingly vital source of the coal, natural gas and rare earth elements that help fuel the Chinese economy. Critics complain that in addition to environmental degradation and forced relocations, mining provides few tangible benefits to ethnic Mongolians.
—- Separating out the minerals is usually done by dousing the rare earths in acids and other chemicals. The tailings from Huamei and other nearby metals plants end up at a 10 square kilometer dam.
The reservoir can hold 230 million cubic meters of the dark, acrid waste. That, according to a sign on its banks, is equal to 92,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
The residents of Xinguang village said the chemicals from the dam have been seeping into the underground waters that feed their wells, crops and livestock, including fluoride.
Cleaning up the mining and the refining processes, once started, will probably impact the level of REE output from the region. Given that the rest of the world won’t really be in a position to replace Chinese output until about 2013 – 2015, assuming no unexpected delays, our increasingly REE intensive world is flirting with disaster through at least 2015.