Even “green” technologies depend on dirty, destructive mining operations for rare metals

Posted: February 14th, 2010 by Militant Libertarian

by Ethan A Huff, NN

The advent of new “green” technologies may seem like a perfect remedy to many former methods that caused heavy pollution and environmental destruction. The only problem is that many of these new technologies require the mining of rare earth metals which often leads to the destruction of land, farms, and water supplies.

Coming primarily from China, rare earth metals like dysprosium and terbium are mined largely by criminal gangs who dominate the heavy metal mining industry. Because nearly all of the world’s supply of these metals is contained in China, the industry lacks any significant regulation. Gang owners are known for savagely tearing apart large swaths of land and leaving behind destructive acid solvents that ruin farmland and pollute rivers, streams and lakes.

The alternative energy industry is gaining popularity at breathtaking speed as nations strive to restructure their energy policies to use clean energy. Because China has a near monopoly on the mining operations that make these technologies possible, many nations including the U.S., are already investing in studies about alternatives to the existing alternatives.

The way it typically works is miners will gather the topsoil from a piece of land, move it into large dirt pits, and filter out the metals using acid washes that separate the metals from the soil. Once exhausted, large areas of barren, acid-tainted land remain where rice fields once lived. The heavy rains come and wash the acid residue downstream to other fields, contaminating them as well.

Even after mining operations are finished, cleanup is typically never done; workers simply move to the next site to begin the process again, extracting as much as possible with no consideration given to protecting the environment. Roughly half of the mining operations are legal and only a fraction of these operate responsibly; those operating illegally often use and abuse the land without providing any compensation to the farmers whose livelihoods are destroyed.

There is currently no effective way to identify which rare earth metals come from legitimate companies and which come from illegal, thug-controlled fly-by-nights. All of it simply gets imported together where it gets refined for use in military gear, wind turbines, electric batteries, and other technologies. In order to avoid detection, illegally derived rare earth metals are often mixed with steel and smuggled in order to hide them from customs agents, later to be extracted and sold.

Many experts believe that tougher regulation on the industry is necessary in order to make clean energy a reality. Otherwise the developed world might as well return to the old ways.


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