Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Tailings Pond

Today, in the Bayan Obo Mining District, lies one of the worlds largest waste ponds, filled with the waste from processing ore: these ponds are formerly known as tailings ponds. Baotou Steel Group (BSG), which owns the tailing pond, the pond is 4247 square miles in size and contains 9.3 million tons of rare earth metals, mixed in the waste. This is due to the larger amounts of ore needed for BSG’s larger scale manufacture of steel: further, by doing this, BSG is processing the least valuable part (ore) and leaving the most valuable part (REM) in the tailing pond.
Tailings pond shown here on the right

At current estimate, by Ma Pengqi, once at the head of BSG’s Rare Earth Institute, was quoted that the tailing pond could be worth as much as the Bayan Obo Mining District: which holds 70% of the world’s known reserves. In fact, BSG dumps 7 to 8 million tons of ore processing waste in the pond annually; furthermore, BSG’s subsidiary Huamei Rare Earths dumbs 2.1 million cubic meters of acid wastewater each year.

The health and environmental implication of this tailings pond is catastrophic. Currently, as a result of the water pressure in the pond, large amounts of saline sewage has seeped into the soil and into the phreatic layer, which is the first stable layer of water beneath the earth’s surface. Resulting in nearby groundwater becoming heavily contaminated. Furthermore, farm yields have decreased rapidly and much of the land is abandoned today. The seven villages containing more than 3,000 resident and 300 hectares of land have been ruined, as the groundwater cannot be used for irrigation, or for human consumption. Another major worry for this tailings pond is that the tailings dyke could fail, and with a tailings pond of this magnitude and being so close to Baotou and the Yellow River, a breach will be disastrous. To put the cherry on top, it is an earthquake-prone region.

Hazardous waste spewing out pipes coming from a REM smelting plant

Even though BSG could go out into their own backyard and process the tailings pond for REM’s, they simply do not as it is not cost effective for them, it is much more cheaper for them to keeping mining than to process the tailings pond. Also, not to forget, that the Chinese government has not given them any incentive to clean up their act.

A key aspect of this problem is not only that BSG has no incentive to clean up their act, but also, their current processing method is outdated and not at all environmentally friendly. Zhang Yong and Ma Pengqi both wrote an article on a new and efficient tailings process; it is said that this new method would recycle up to 87% of REM’s from the tailing dam. Sadly, the technology and facilities are still not there as it is still concept. On the other hand BSG could use a newer and more efficient method of processing there mines, first to extract REM’s, then second to extract the iron; this will lead to higher rates of utilization of REM’s, more efficient smelting, and lower pollution. But to get BSG or any other mines around the area to use it is another thing, as Ma Pengqi has been quoted saying, “the is no sense of urgency”.  

Which is one thing we should keep in mind, these huge firms making billions of dollars a year do not see it as urgent to keep are earth clean, and with our ever growing hunger for the next electronic device, we are supporting them and their actions.


Monday, November 24, 2014

REEs from China: Global Economic Impact

There is a global demand for electronics such as cell phones, computers and electronics needed for “green energy.” Rare earth elements (REEs) are required to build electronics and currently China is the primary location for mining and producing REEs. There is a worldwide dependence on China’s production and distribution of REEs giving China control over the global REE market. This allow them to regulate prices and supply of REEs, presenting an opportunity to analyze one of the many issues related to REEs; economics. Controlling the production of REE’s is economically beneficial to China because they need REEs to continue to be a predominant provider of electronics globally. Therefore, China is able to capitalize on the global need for both REEs and electronics.
 When examining the control over REEs and electronic production by China, the basic economic principle of supply and demand is something to be considered. The overall concept is the quantity, or supply, of a product combined with the need, or demand, for said product determines the price. If the supply of REEs is low or reduced while the demand remains high, prices will continue to grow. On the other hand, when the supply of REEs increases while the demand for REE’s remains high, prices should decrease. The United States is aware of their fiscal dependence on China in general which gives them a reason to be interested in finding ways to reduce dependence on REEs from China.
The high demand for the REEs supplied by China provides them with an opportunity to drive the prices up to the rest of the world. China is mindful of their own needs for REEs in order to continue to be a leading producer of electronics. Therefore, retaining strong control over the global supply of REEs is dually profitable to China’s economy. China claims they are concerned they are diminishing their own supply of REEs and have been reducing availability to the global economy. With the projected decreased supply, a shortage is projected, which creates concern for the rest of the world. Without a supply of REEs outside of China, prices for REEs will continue to increase; causing prices for electronics to increase, and therefore, the electronics we wish to buy will cost us more.
If the global economy can increase their sources outside of China it can increase independence from China. Two main ways to obtain REEs without China is to find new sources to mine these elements or recycle the REEs we already have. Much effort is being placed on finding new locations for mining REEs but the effort placed on recycling REEs could arguable be increased. Removing REEs in electronics no longer in use and recycling them for future use in electronics may be the best option for global independence. For example, if we repurpose the REEs that already exist in The United States locally, we can create our own stock of REEs. Building a system of using and reusing REEs within an economy provides an opportunity to control our own price for our supply for our own demand. Recycling REEs is an additional step that would require action from individuals, companies, and communities. This action may be seen as a risk by some who worry they will compromise any personal information stored on electronics deemed for recycling. Some might consider recycling as too much for them to act, seeing their voluntary action of recycling costing them too much time or effort. Ultimately recycling REEs eliminates the process of mining for REEs and the need to buy them from those who produce them, a benefit which may outweigh the cost of recycling.