China’s REE Monopoly
The most infamous mine in China is Bayan-Obo, the largest REE mine in the world. Even more infamous than the mine itself is the tailing pond it has produced: there are over 70,000 tons of radioactive thorium stored in the area. This has become a larger issue recently because the tailing pond lacks proper lining. As a result, its contents have been seeping into groundwater and will eventually hit the Yellow River, a key source of drinking water. Currently, the sludge is moving at a pace of 20-30 meters per year, a dangerously rapid rate.
There are plenty more examples of unsafe mines throughout China. The village of Lingbeizhen in the Southern Jiangxi province has leaching ponds and wastewater pools exposed to open air. It is easy to imagine toxic chemicals spilling into groundwater or waterways since they are left unmonitored and vulnerable to the whims of nature. In another mine, so much wastewater was created that China had to build a treatment facility to clean 40,000 tons of wastewater per day before letting the water flow back into the river.
Workers are also suffering from health complications due to exposure to these toxic chemicals. Worker safety is not prioritized or monitored in these mines, resulting in skin irritation and disruptions to their respiratory, nervous, and cardiovascular systems. Human rights abuses have been reported throughout mines in these areas as laborers are overworked and underpaid.
China has taken some steps to address issues arising from REE mining, but not nearly enough. China estimates US$5.5 billion in damage from illegal mining that needs to be cleaned. The Chinese government has also acknowledged the existence of so-called “cancer villages” where a disproportionately large number of people have fallen ill with cancer due to mining-based pollution. Officials have shut down some smaller illegal mining operations, looking to consolidate mining under six state-owned groups that the Chinese government claims will maintain better practices surrounding toxic waste management, but farmers claim state-owned companies are just as bad. Some argue state-owned companies are worse because they poison communities with governmental support.