China pays price for world's rare earths addiction

May 01, 2011 by Allison Jackson
Rare earths are loaded on to a ship at a port in Lianyungang, eastern China. Farmers in northern China living near a 10-square-kilometre rare earth mining dump site 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.

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 , which are vital in making many high-tech products.

"In this place, if you eat the or drink the it will harm your body," Wang said, pointing towards lifeless fields now strewn with rubbish around Dalahai village, a few hundred metres from the dump.

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 .

Two-thirds of that is processed in mineral-rich Baotou on the edge of the Gobi desert.

Environmental groups have long criticised rare earths mining for spewing and radioactive thorium and uranium into the air, water and soil, which can cause cancer and birth defects among residents and animals.

Beijing, keen to burnish its green credentials and tighten its grip over the highly sought-after metals, has started cleaning up the industry by closing illegal mines, setting tougher environmental standards and restricting exports.

But Wang and the other farmers in Dalahai blame state-owned giant Baogang Group, China's largest producer of rare earths and a major iron ore miner and steel producer, for poisoning their fields and ruining their livelihoods.

Strong winds whip across the dump's millions of tonnes of waste, blowing toxic and towards surrounding villages.

"It is the pollution from the tailings dam," Wang Er, 52, told AFP, pointing a dirty finger at his spiky hair which started turning white 30 years ago.

Graphic illustrating the use of rare earth metals, 95 percent of which are supplied by China.

Baogang, which has rare earths and refineries stretching for about seven kilometres along a road in the area, did not respond to AFP requests for comment.

But a 2006 study by local environment authorities showed levels of thorium, a by-product of rare earths processing, in Dalahai's soil were 36 times higher than other areas of Baotou, state media have reported.

"People are suffering severely," the Chinese-language National Business Daily said in December, citing the official study. Sixty-six villagers died of cancer between 1993 and 2005 while crop yields fell "substantially".

"There is not one step of the rare earth mining process that is not disastrous to the environment," Greenpeace China's toxics campaign manager Jamie Choi said in a recent report.

Choi said the impact of the government crackdown depends on whether it is "implemented properly".

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.

As demand for rare earths soars, China is slashing export quotas. Analysts say Beijing wants to drive up global prices and preserve the metals for its own burgeoning high-tech industries.

The moves have prompted complaints from foreign high-tech producers while the United States and Australia have responded by developing or reopening mines shuttered when cheaper Chinese supplies became available.

A front loader shifts soil containing rare earth minerals to be loaded at a port in Lianyungang, eastern China.

Several kilometres from the massive dumping ground is the privately-owned Baotou City Hong Tianyu Rare Earths Factory -- one of dozens of operators processing rare earths, iron and coal in a dusty no-man's land.

Workers wearing blue uniforms and army camouflage runners inhale toxic fumes as huge spinning steel pipes process tonnes of rare earths bound for high-tech manufacturers in China, Japan, the United States and elsewhere.

A production manager surnamed Wang told AFP the factory produces "several thousand tonnes of rare earths a year" and the toxic waste is piped to another dumping ground in the area.

The desolate fields around Wang's village have been left fallow as farmers wait for government compensation. Some appear to have fled already, with empty houses and shops along dusty roads falling into disrepair.

Authorities have offered to pay farmers 60,000 yuan per mu ($9,200 per 0.067 hectares) so they can move to a new village four kilometres away. But they won't have land to till and the farmers say the compensation is inadequate.

"People like us can only cultivate the land and raise animals. If we don't have a regular job, where will our income come from, how will we live?" asked Wang Tao, his brown face creased with worry.

Explore further: NOAA establishes 'tipping points' for sea level rise related flooding

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

China announces shakeup of rare earths industry

Feb 16, 2011

(AP) -- China plans to tighten control over rare earths producers and restrict output in a five-year development strategy, the Cabinet said Wednesday, amid concern abroad about plans to reduce exports of the exotic minerals ...

China tries to calm unease over rare earths curbs

Sep 03, 2009

(AP) -- A Chinese official tried to calm unease about curbs on exports of rare earths used in clean energy products and superconductors, saying Thursday that sales will continue but must be limited to reduce damage to China's ...

China to raise rare earths production this year

Mar 31, 2011

(AP) -- China said Thursday it will increase this year's production quota for rare earths but gave no sign it might reverse plans to cut exports of the exotic metals needed by high-tech industry.

China says rare earths not a 'bargaining tool'

Oct 28, 2010

(AP) -- China said Thursday it will not use exports of rare earths, exotic minerals required by high-tech industry, as a diplomatic "bargaining tool" while Washington pressed Beijing to clarify its policy following its de ...

China assures Clinton on rare earth exports

Oct 30, 2010

(AP) -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Saturday sought and received assurances from China's foreign minister about the country's export of exotic metals key to the global high-tech industry, ...

Recommended for you

UN sends team to clean up Bangladesh oil spill

16 hours ago

The United Nations said Thursday it has sent a team of international experts to Bangladesh to help clean up the world's largest mangrove forest, more than a week after it was hit by a huge oil spill.

How will climate change transform agriculture?

16 hours ago

Climate change impacts will require major but very uncertain transformations of global agriculture systems by mid-century, according to new research from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Report: Radiation leak at nuclear dump was small

16 hours ago

A final report by independent researchers shows the radiation leak from the federal government's underground nuclear waste repository in southern New Mexico was small and localized.

Confucian thought and China's environmental dilemmas

20 hours ago

Conventional wisdom holds that China - the world's most populous country - is an inveterate polluter, that it puts economic goals above conservation in every instance. So China's recent moves toward an apparent ...

User comments : 6

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

holoman
2.6 / 5 (5) May 02, 2011
China wanted to take dominance in rare earth production by destroying any production in other countries.

Now they will be paying the toxic waste price for many years to come. I am really sad for its people.

By the way, a company called Advanced Plasma Industries Inc. just announced it has developed a new science for rare earth mining, clean coal, and hydrogen from sea water.

Millions of Chinese people are now on the verge of
dying because of their countries laissez-faire attitude
towards the environment.

The profits they made will now have to be put back into
cleaning up the mess.

ryggesogn2
1.5 / 5 (8) May 02, 2011
The profits they made will now have to be put back into
cleaning up the mess.

Why? They are a communist country. Why do they care?

It is amusing to note that so many rare earths are needed for 'green' technology.
How many 'greeny' heads will explode when they try to deal with the toxicity of their oil and coal replacements?
ryggesogn2
1.7 / 5 (6) May 02, 2011
"An investigation into the conditions of Chinese workers has revealed the shocking human cost of producing the must-have Apple iPhones and iPads that are now ubiquitous in the west."
http://www.guardi...humanely
Apple is supposed to be 'socially responsible'?
How many rare earths are in Ipads?
rwinners
3 / 5 (2) May 03, 2011
Same thing has happened in this country. The problem is not the digging, the problem is dealing with the waste in a way that is permanent.
The digging really disturbs a very small part of the earth's surface. The waste problem is the real killer.
Shelgeyr
1 / 5 (3) May 05, 2011
The article's title needs correcting. Instead of:
China pays price for world's rare earths addiction


it should read:
Chinese pay price for world's rare earths consumption. China, on the other hand, is making out like a bandit!


Or words to that effect.
that_guy
1 / 5 (1) May 12, 2011
Rare earth mineral mining is dirty. The main US plant was closed due to environmental reasons, and only now is reopening it on the table because when china was happy to provide everything, we saw no reason to deal with the environmental consequences.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.