The BBC’s Tim Maughan recently reported on a toxic lake next to the city of “Baotou, the largest industrial city in Inner Mongolia:”
[Baotou] is one of the world’s biggest suppliers of “rare earth” minerals. These elements can be found in everything from magnets in wind turbines and electric car motors, to the electronic guts of smartphones and flatscreen TVs. In 2009 China produced 95% of the world’s supply of these elements, and it’s estimated that the Bayan Obo mines just north of Baotou contain 70% of the world’s reserves.
Maughan’s description of Baotou sounds rather hellish:
Everywhere you look, between the half-completed tower blocks and hastily thrown up multi-storey parking lots, is a forest of flame-tipped refinery towers and endless electricity pylons. The air is filled with a constant, ambient, smell of sulphur.
One of the minerals being processed is called cerium:
Cerium has a huge number of commercial applications, from colouring glass to making catalytic converters. The guide who shows us around the plant explains that they mainly produce cerium oxide, used to polish touchscreens on smartphones and tablets.
Another is neodymium:
[Neodymium] is used to dye glass, especially for making lasers, but perhaps its most important use is in making powerful yet lightweight magnets. Neodymium magnets are used in consumer electronics items such as in-ear headphones, cellphone microphones, and computer hard-drives.
At the other end of the scale they are a vital component in large equipment that requires powerful magnetic fields, such as wind farm turbines and the motors that power the new generation of electric cars.
Why are neodymium and cerium called “rare earth metals?” Maugham notes that “The intriguing thing about both neodymium and cerium is that while they’re called rare earth minerals, they’re actually fairly common,” and links their supposed “rarity” to the toxicity of processing the ore:
Arguably, what makes it, and cerium, scarce enough to be profitable are the hugely hazardous and toxic process needed to extract them from ore and to refine them into usable products. For example, cerium is extracted by crushing mineral mixtures and dissolving them in sulphuric and nitric acid, and this has to be done on a huge industrial scale, resulting in a vast amount of poisonous waste as a byproduct. It could be argued that China’s dominance of the rare earth market is less about geology and far more about the country’s willingness to take an environmental hit that other nations shy away from.
And there’s no better place to understand China’s true sacrifice than the shores of Baotou toxic lake. Apparently created by damming a river and flooding what was once farm land, the lake is a “tailings pond”: a dumping ground for waste byproducts.
Unsurprisingly, the black sludge of the lake is not particularly good for one’s health:
Unknown Fields’ Liam Young collected some samples of the waste and took it back to the UK to be tested. “The clay we collected from the toxic lake tested at around three times background radiation,” he later tells me.
Maughan concludes with some thoughts on the costs of “progress:”
After seeing the impact of rare earth mining myself, it’s impossible to view the gadgets I use everyday in the same way. As I watched Apple announce their smart watch recently, a thought crossed my mind: once we made watches with minerals mined from the Earth and treated them like precious heirlooms; now we use even rarer minerals and we’ll want to update them yearly. Technology companies continually urge us to upgrade; to buy the newest tablet or phone. But I cannot forget that it all begins in a place like Bautou, and a terrible toxic lake that stretches to the horizon.