Rare earth elements are a crucial part of much of modern technology. Everything from computers to X-ray machines and aircraft engines needs one or more rare earth elements for magnets, lenses, and other functions. The world’s tech giants such as Apple, Huawei, and Tesla depend on suppliers of rare earths.
Rare earth elements are not actually rare, but they are very expensive to extract in ways that are not extremely harmful to the environment. China has been a major source of these elements since its rare earth mining industry took off in the 1990s. The removal of rare earths from the earth’s crust, using a mix of water and chemicals, has caused extensive water and soil pollution.
Today, concrete leaching ponds and plastic-lined wastewater pools dot the hills of Southeast China. Large wastewater ponds sit uncovered and open to the elements in many places. Landslides or barrier failures can spill contaminated contents into waterways or groundwater.
Local and federal officials in China have started to shut down illegal and small-scale rare earth mining operations and have embarked on a cleanup of polluted sites. The rare earth mining cleanup operation is part of wider efforts across China to address severe problems of water, air and soil pollution.
China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology estimated that the cleanup bill for southern Jiangxi Province could amount to more than $5 billion. Many environmental experts and local officials say that the cost of the cleanup should not be shouldered by the Chinese government alone, but also by the rare earth industry and the global companies and consumers that benefit from rare earth technology. As rare earth mining efforts start up elsewhere around the world, it is important not to repeat the mistakes made in China.
Photo, posted April 21, 2019, courtesy of John Beans via Flickr.