Clean and Green? Rare Earth Elements and Technology

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Toxic waste being pumped into a tailings pond at a Rare Earth Element Mine.

Maybe things aren’t as clean as they seem….  The Mother Nature Network describes the scene pretty well, “Lots of green technologies rely on rare earths [elements], but ironically, rare earth producers have a long history of harming the environment to get the metals. Like many industries that process mineral ores, they end up with toxic byproducts known as ‘tailings,’ which can be contaminated with radioactive uranium and thorium.”

With the re-opening of MolyCorp’s Mountain Pass mine in California, Rare Earth Element (REE) mining came back on the scene in the U.S.  Ever since 2002 when that same mine had a 60 recorded spills, resulting in 600,000 gallons of radioactive water leaking into the Mojave desert, REEs have been coming only from China.  But with China restricting some exports, and cutting back on the mines due to environmental concerns, mining companies in the U.S. are out looking for more.

A report by Bloomberg, details some of the toxic reasons to leave REEs alone.

  • China’s rare-earth industry each year produces more than five times the waste gas, including deadly fluorine and sulfur dioxide, than the total flared by all miners and oil refiners in the U.S.
  • Rare earth mining in China produced 25 million tons of wastewater laced with cancer-causing heavy metals such as cadmium.
  • It takes more chemicals to separate rare earth elements from ore than it does for base metals such as copper, zinc and lead.
  • Low levels of radioactive thorium and uranium also occur in minerals containing many rare-earth elements.
  • In a December 2012 report, the Environmental Protection Agency said that as yet, the agency has no formal strategy for managing and minimizing rare-earth mining’s risks.

The Bloomberg article also points out why they are still being mined, “Rare earth metals are key to global efforts to switch to cleaner (sic) energy — from batteries in hybrid cars to magnets in wind turbines”.

There are plans quickly spreading across the country for REE mine explorations.  While some point out the growing concerns; other organizations (like the Department of Defense) are going gang busters to get new REE mines operating.