Caption: “Dozens of pipes line the shore, churning out a torrent of thick, black, chemical waste from the refineries that surround the lake. The smell of sulfur and the roar of the pipes invades my senses. It feels like hell on Earth.” 

Tim Maughan, a journalist and writer, wrote a report after his trip to Baotou in 2015. According to Mining.com, this is the world’s biggest supplier of rare earth minerals

Tim said that Baogang’s steel and rare earth complex dominated the horizon. Endless cooling towers and chimneys reached the gray and washed-out sky—an artificial lake filled with black, barely liquid, toxic mud.

According to the BBC, the minerals are mined and manufactured at a massive complex known as Baogang Steel and Rare Earth. It generates millions of tons of waste each year. This sludge is dumped nearby in what was once a river.

Therefore, a toxic sludge lake has been forming for years in China’s autonomous region of Inner Mongolia. It is only there because of the technology boom.

The U.S. Geological Survey reports that 17 elements are mined and then used in the production of smartphones, tablets, and even “green” technology such as wind turbines. 

China is reported to have the world’s largest reserves of rare earths, with 44 million tonnes in 2021 accounting for more than 36% of global stockpiles. 

However, Tom Cheshire, Asia correspondent, called this lake an “open wound” in Baotou, a city in Inner Mongolia, northern China. He said that the pond was clean energy’s dark secret. It’s a byproduct of rare earth processing. It seeps into the ground and poisons the water.

The polluted pond also affects the daily life of villagers in this area.

Historical and economic importance of the rare-earth and its benefits

A brief 20th-century history and rare-earth industry development

Science History describes China’s brief 20th-century history and its development in the rare-earth industry.

The weakening Qing dynasty left China increasingly vulnerable to exploitation by European colonial powers during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Then, after a revolt in 1911, China was reunified under the rule of the Kuomintang party in 1928.

China’s regime was under the leadership of Mao Zedong in 1949. Through two totalitarian movements, Mao sought to transform China and secure his own political position.

Among them, the “Great Leap Forward” from 1958 to 1962 was launched to collectivize agriculture and build heavy industry in China. This move created a devastating famine that killed tens of millions of people.

The country aims to achieve political stability, internal prosperity, and to overcome the disastrous tragedies of twentieth-century history. As a result, it began to develop its manufacturing and global trade capabilities.

But why rare-earths, not other metals? Felix Chang, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said they are valuable for their conductive and magnetic properties.

The economic importance and benefits of rare-earth

According to the China Briefing, China has dominated the global rare earth industry since the 2000s. The nation is responsible for 55% to 70%of rare earth mining and up to 90% of processing.

To the Chinese government

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) cites many observers that China’s rare earth policies are part of a complex web of Chinese government industrial policies. They seek to promote the development of domestic industries deemed essential to economic modernization.

There are three things China wants to do. 

First, China ramps up its rare earth industry performance in the face of rising global competition. Then, protect the asset value of rare earth minerals as a “rare” resource.

Furthermore, China requires more rare earths to upgrade its industrial infrastructure and meet its carbon reduction targets. A highly consolidated rare earth industry will provide more assurances on these fronts.

Therefore, they merged three state entities to establish the China Rare Earth Group.

According to 2021 data, the new group will have 52,719 metric tons of mining quota (31% of China’s national total) and 47,129 metric tons of smelting quota (29% of the national total). China Rare Earth Group will account for approximately 62 percent of the country’s heavy rare earth supplies.

Prices were expected to rise as a result of the megafirm’s increased pricing power over key rare earths.

Data from Customs shows the average export price of rare earth jumped 36% in November to 13,200 dollars, compared with 2020 data. For some substances, it jumped to 50% in 2021.

Businesses could make huge profits via illegal mining activities.

Huge profits could be made via illegal mining activities. 

Chinese-language media outlet QQ cites data from an incomplete statistical analysis. China’s ionic rare earth mining directive’s annual approval indicates 17,900 tons. However, the actual annual mining volume ranged between 50,000 and 80,000 tons. As a result, the amount of illegal mining is 30,000 to 50,000 tons per year.

Second, the mining costs are very low. Illegal miners generally choose ore body thickness, good permeability, and high-grade ore mining.

How does rare earth processing affect a resident’s life? 

Although rare-earths are essential to technology development, mining and processing these elements could harm nearby residents. 

As reported by China Dialogue, Baotou Steel Group’s (BSG) tailings pond is 11 square kilometers in size. Tailings ponds are dumping grounds for ore and other industrial waste. BSG’s tailings pond holds 180 million tonnes of fine waste powder left over from ore processing. It is one of the largest tailings ponds in the country.

It results in local villages suffering from the high cost of rare earth mining. 

The foul waters of the tailings pond contain not only toxic chemicals but also radioactive elements. They can cause pancreas, lungs, and leukemia cancers.

In 2010, a reporter from the First Financial Daily visited a place in Inner Mongolia. He met a person named Zhang Jianhua who worked there. Zhang said the pollution was too severe. No one wanted to live in the factory, they couldn’t stand it. Some colleagues suffered from osteoporosis.

In 2012, villager He Guixiang told the Guardian he had aching legs like many other villagers. There’s a lot of diabetes, osteoporosis, and chest problems. All families are infected.

Tom Cheshire, Asia Correspondent, shares some stories that villagers wanted to speak up on Sky News this year.

During his journey, Tom met a farmer. The farmer’s field had just been watered. He claimed the water was unfit for human or animal consumption. In another village, Dalahai, 30 to 40% of the villagers developed cancer. 

Moreover, Li Guirong said there were just fields here as far as the eye could see before they built factories. Watermelons, aubergines, and tomatoes could be found in this radioactive sludge. According to Li, crops in nearby villages began to fail in 1980. Ten years later, the villagers had to accept that vegetables would no longer grow.

In the village of Xinguang Sancun, farmers let some fields run wild and stopped planting anything but wheat and corn. Because the soil and water were polluted, farmers had to move away. 

Lu Yongqing, a farmer, tried his luck in Baotou. He worked as a mason, carried bricks in a factory and sold vegetables at local markets. He said [quote] “I couldn’t feed my family any longer.” [end quote].

 Wang Jianguo spoke to the Guardian in 2014 as a person who knows a little about rare earth mining. In the beginning, there was no tap water there. They all drank from wells. The water looked fine but smelled really bad. 

In Tom’s article, a woman said they asked the authorities for filtering tools but didn’t give anything. 

Sichuan environmentalist Chen Yuanfei responded to the interviewer. He indicated that the rare earth refining process causes great environmental pollution and destruction. People don’t know the specific dangers and specialists involved in this project. He said,

Caption: “Some officials only work on the image of this project for profit. They relocate once the money has been made. Some officials collude with the business, caring about nothing but the profit, leaving the mess for the public.” 

Julie Klinger, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Delaware,said [quote] “The policy priority up to the end of the first decade of the 21st century was really around production first, development first and clean up later.” [end quote]

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