Climate and Energy Forum Notes
Here are my notes from the Climate and Energy forum. They are extracted mainly from the references listed below. They are evidently not complete yet; any additions I make will be posted here as time permits.
The rare earth elements (REEs) that are used in construction of high tech products, from smart phones to smart cars, and are indispensable for wind turbines and solar energy panels, put a large dent in our sustainability and renewable energy claims when we consider the conditions under which they are extracted.
Green energy technology is expected to become the largest consumer of rare earth elements in the future. According to Mark Smith, CEO of Molycorp Minerals, the company that owns and operates the Mountain Pass rare earth mine in California, “we’ve coined the term ‘the green elements’ [to refer to REEs] because there are so many applications [for them] right now-hybrid electric vehicles, wind powered generation…permanent magnet generators, compact florescent light bulbs…just to name a few. Rare earths are absolutely indispensable. They [green technologies] will not work without rare earths.”
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, rare earth elements comprise those elements that are part of the family of lanthanides on the periodic table with atomic numbers 57-71. Scandium (atomic number 21) and yttrium (atomic number 39) are grouped with the lanthanide family because of their similar properties.
Due to the large amounts of toxic and radioactive materials generated in their labor-intensive process of extraction from ore, until very recently the world has been silently complicit in allowing China to have almost exclusive monopoly in extraction of REEs for world markets. The natural abundance of the ore in China has of course helped this along. China processes about 95% of the world demand for REEs.
It is believed that the extraction of one ton of REEs generates
· 9000 to 12000 cubic meters of waste gas containing dust concentrate, hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, and sulfuric acid,
· approximately 75 cubic meters of acidic wastewater, and
· about one ton of radioactive waste residue; Thorium is the radioactive element naturally occurring in the REEs matrix.
“The disposal of tailings also contributes to the problem. Tailings are the ground up material left behind once the rare earth has been extracted, Often these tailings contain thorium, which is radioactive. Generally, tailings are placed into a large land impoundment and stored.”
· One ton of REEs generates 2000 tons of tailings.
“Contrary to their name, the 17 rare earth elements are relatively common — their rarity comes from the labor involved in separating them from surrounding rock. The process requires a cocktail of chemical compounds and produces a “tremendous amount” of solid waste, according to the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency.”
“Scientists say under-regulated rare earths projects can produce wastewater and tailings ponds that leak acids, heavy metals and radioactive elements into groundwater, and they point out that market pressures for cheap and reliable rare earths may lead project managers to skimp on environmental protections.”
This is what has actually taken place in China in the last few decades since the onset of the so-called “third industrial revolution.”
“While China possesses approximately 57 percent of the world’s reserves of rare earth elements, the industry within China is plagued with disorderly development and poor management practices….Other issues facing China’s rare earth industry are smuggling and illegal mining activities, environmental damage due to poor mining practice…”
“According to China Business News, due to the annual increased demand for rare earth elements, many buyers are resorting to smuggling rare earths out of China,” 20,000 tons worth in 2008 alone. Regulations on safe mining practice are nearly impossible to enforce in this type of environment.” The large scale of the industry in China also adds to the difficulty in enforcing regulations to improve safety standards. Because of the revenue potential of rare earth mining, therefore, many illegal mining operations in China operate outside the safety regulations and create massive environmental hazards.
“All the rare earth industries in the Baotou region of China produce approximately ten million tons of all varieties of wastewater every year and most of that is discharged” without proper treatment, contaminating potable water and surrounding farmlands.
The Chinese government does not provide incentives to the REE industries for improvements to their safety and environmental standards; the stiff REE market competitions, therefore, compel many producers in China to bypass these standards and pass any savings to their customers.
“The ore mined in Bayan Obo is transported to Baotou via open railway carts, where it is then processed. Unfortunately, with old, outdated technology, equipment, and little oversight, the waste finds its way into the Yellow River,” travels a distance of 1300 miles, “through mountainous terrain as well as through heavily populated areas before finally dumping into the Yellow Sea.”
“…refining rare earth elements require such chemicals as ammonium bicarbonate and oxalic acid. The potential health hazards of ammonium bicarbonate include:
· Irritation to the respiratory tract if inhaled,
· Irritation to the gastrointestinal tract if ingested,
· Redness and pain if it comes in contact with the eyes,
· Redness, itching, and pain if it comes in contact with the skin.
Oxalic acid is poisonous and potentially fatal if swallowed. It is also corrosive and causes severe irritation and burns to the skin, eyes, and respiratory tract, is harmful if it is inhaled or absorbed through the skin, and can cause kidney damage." These and other chemicals often find their way into the Yellow River.
Thorium is believed to be “a source of radioactive contamination in the Baotou area and the Yellow River. According to a local source, ‘In the Yellow River, in Baotou, the fish all died. They dump the waste-the chemicals-into the river. You cannot eat the fish because they are polluted.’ Some 150 million people depend on the river as their primary source of water.”
“Safety standards in China are lax. ‘People in their 30s have died of cancer working around mines, possibly from radioactive materials,’ said one local source….The most common disease in Baotou is pneumoconiosis, better known as black lung. There are 5,387 residents in Baotou who suffer from black lung, which makes up more than 50 percent of the cases in the autonomous region.”
It is ironic that black lung was at some point the disease of the coal miners in the U.S. Improvements in safety standards and movements for green energy have to my knowledge eradicated this disease from the energy industries in the U.S. Yet it is partly the hunger for green energy in the rest of the world that has inadvertently created the same problems among the workers mining the so called “green elements” in China.
The problems with rare earth mining are, however, not limited to those in China. “In Malaysia, Mitsubishi Chemical is now engaged in a $100 million cleanup of its Bukit Merah rare earths processing site, which closed in 1992 amid opposition from local residents and Japanese politicians and environmentalists. It is one of Asia’s largest radioactive waste cleanup sites, and local physicians said the thorium contamination from the plant has led to an increase in leukemia and other ailments. The legacy of that project has led many Malaysians to be wary of rare earths mines.”
And due to political conflicts that led China to limit its exports of REEs, a 2013 Yale article states: “In California, Molycorp Minerals recently reopened a rare earths processing operation that it abandoned in 2002 near Death Valley, after retooling its operation to meet environmental concerns over contaminated groundwater. In Brazil, mining giant Vale is considering whether to process rare earths at a copper mine in the Amazon. India recently agreed to export rare earths to Japan, and a Toyota subsidiary is preparing to mine rare earths in Vietnam. In Greenland, several companies are preparing to mine and process that island’s abundant rare earth resources, which will become more accessible as Greenland’s ice sheet continues to melt.”
“Like nuclear power plants, rare earths projects require strict independent auditing in order to prevent environmental damage, according to Peter Karamoskos, a nuclear radiologist and the public’s representative at Australia’s Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency. But as the rare earths industry expands to developing countries like Malaysia and Vietnam, such oversight will be unlikely. ‘A regulator will either be in the pocket of the industry or a government,’ he says.”
Non-REEs in the high tech “green” industries
The increasing demands for polysilicon that goes into the construction of solar panels and Cobalt that is used in construction of batteries for smartphones (in particular Apple iPhone), laptops, and electric cars, have created situations in China and Congo that not only belie the claims of sustainability of the respective “green” industries but are criminal in the worst meaning of the term.
“…the Luoyang Zhonggui High-Technology Co., here in the central plains of Henan Province near the Yellow River, stands out for one reason: It's a green energy company, producing polysilicon destined for solar energy panels sold around the world. But the by-product of polysilicon production -- silicon tetrachloride -- is a highly toxic substance that poses environmental hazards.” ‘The land where you dump or bury it will be infertile. No grass or trees will grow in the place. . . . It is like dynamite -- it is poisonous, it is polluting. Human beings can never touch it,’ said Ren Bingyan, a professor at the School of Material Sciences at Hebei Industrial University.”
Yet the Luoyang Zhonggui High-Technology Co. dumped its silicon tetrachloride on the open grounds of a nearby village almost every day for nine months. “The first time Li Gengxuan saw the dump trucks from the nearby factory pull into his village, he couldn't believe what happened. Stopping between the cornfields and the primary school playground, the workers dumped buckets of bubbling white liquid onto the ground. Then they turned around and drove right back through the gates of their compound without a word.”
In Congo Cobalt is mined in hand-dug mines in slave-like conditions; child-labor is a common occurrence. “The world’s soaring demand for cobalt is at times met by workers, including children, who labor in harsh and dangerous conditions. An estimated 100,000 cobalt miners in Congo use hand tools to dig hundreds of feet underground with little oversight and few safety measures, according to workers, government officials and evidence found by The Washington Post during visits to remote mines. Deaths and injuries are common. And the mining activity exposes local communities to levels of toxic metals that appear to be linked to ailments that include breathing problems and birth defects, health officials say.”
“The Post traced this cobalt pipeline and, for the first time, showed how cobalt mined in these harsh conditions ends up in popular consumer products. It moves from small-scale Congolese mines to a single Chinese company — Congo DongFang International Mining, part of one of the world’s biggest cobalt producers, Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt — that for years has supplied some of the world’s largest battery makers. They, in turn, have produced the batteries found inside products such as Apple’s iPhones — a finding that calls into question corporate assertions that they are capable of monitoring their supply chains for human rights abuses or child labor.”
“Few companies regularly track where their cobalt comes from. Following the path from mine to finished product is difficult but possible, The Post discovered. Armed guards block access to many of Congo’s mines. The cobalt then passes through several companies and travels thousands of miles.”
The fourth industrial revolution (“Internet of things,” 5g, and so on) is now underway. According to MIT, however, nuclear fusion power, which is completely clean, may be about 15 years away.
Given the continuing development of Austin’s east side, proper site assessments are needed. Much of the east side is contaminated with pollutants. Soil remediation prior to permitting development is absolutely necessary. Addressing environmental issues here at home should be a central part of Austin’s sustainability goals. A sustainable city cannot ignore concerns around environmental justice.