China's Rare Earth Gold Rush

At high environmental costs, impoverished communities turn to do-it-yourself rare earth mining.
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Trucks transport rare earth to be exported from a port in China's Jiangsu province, Feb. 13, 2011.
Trucks transport rare earth to be exported from a port in China's Jiangsu province, Feb. 13, 2011.

The illegal mining of rare earth is leaving poisoned groundwater and environmental devastation in some of the poorest regions of China, as private entrepreneurs jockey for the huge profits involved, experts said.

A Jiangxi-based mining expert surnamed Huang said the region around the province's Ganzhou city was a key center for rare earth mining, but also home to impoverished rural communities, many of which were now extracting rare earth minerals privately.

"The people in this district are very poor," he said. "They will use any excuse, like buying some hilltops and saying they will grow fruit or other crops on them, but actually using them to extract rare earth."

According to Chinese experts, rare earth extraction is hard to regulate, because the minerals are present in low concentrations throughout certain soil types, meaning that anyone with a plot of land can begin extracting them with chemical processes via a number of holes just a few feet in depth.

The result is a process that strips off the topsoil and vegetation, replacing it with craters and tailings full of toxic chemicals, which leach into local water supplies and crop irrigation systems.

Ironically, rare earth metals are used to build components used in green energy technology like wind turbines and hybrid or electric car batteries.

According to official media, China supplies more than 90 percent of the world's rare earth metals, but its reserves only account for about one-third of the world's total.


Repeated government attempts to regulate illegal mining of rare earths have so far yielded few results, as rare earth prices have risen to 40,000 yuan (U.S. $6,000) a ton.

"There is little that can be done to manage things in China's current situation," Huang said. "China is very corrupt, and that goes for all the government departments and agencies."

"If you have money, you can do anything," he said. "You can see that some of the officials ... are doing this themselves."

U.K.-based chemical industry expert Liu Wei said the waste products of rare earth extraction could cause huge environmental damage.

"The refining process requires a lot of chemicals, including concentrated sulfuric acid and ammonium bicarbonate," Liu said. "These substances produce a lot of residue waste, and they cause huge levels of pollution."

"These substances are highly corrosive," he added.

He said that in Western countries, the majority of investment in similar operations goes toward waste water management, to clean the effluent up to acceptable levels.

"China exports more rare earth minerals than any other country in the world ... because it invests hardly anything in environmental protection," Liu added.

China has been rocked by a series of pollution scandals after years of lax enforcement of what environmentalists say are, on paper, high environmental standards.

Many of the poisonings have involved lead and various toxins from chemical and electronics factories, often affecting the health of local children.

Top environmental officials have warned that the ecology of China's lakes and rivers has become unbalanced and that water resources management in China faces "major challenges."

Reported by Shi Shan for RFA's Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.





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