A Dirty Business: Mining for Renewables

Material extraction is a dirty business. Mining is dangerous work that often exposes workers and local residents to unspeakable harm from toxic chemicals, collapse, and flooding. Scars on the land from mines and mineral processing facilities can stay for decades or more, leaving land that is impossible to farm, and poisoned water tables. There’s a crucial difference between mining for renewables versus mining of fossil fuels: materials for clean power go into equipment that should last for decades, after which many can be recycled, while fuels immediately go up in smoke. But wastefulness abounds in the current system, and there’s a tremendous amount of new technology to be fabricated. Without close attention to the supply chain in the renewable energy transition, unfair mining practices are virtually guaranteed to expand.

Rare stakes

Let’s begin with the rare earth elements, a set of 17 elements that include cerium, praseodymium, and neodymium (Nd). The latter is particularly important for making very strong, lightweight permanent magnets. Nd magnets that are only a few grams in mass can lift several kilograms, making these tiny wonders the choice of magicians, who frequently use them to create illusions. Magnets, either of the permanent variety or electromagnets, are necessary for both generation of electricity and electric motors. Nd magnets are used in many electric vehicles, which contain up to around 3 kg of Nd in their motors. Some wind turbines also use Nd magnets in their generators; a 5 MW wind turbine would require about a ton of Nd, although frequently electromagnets are used instead. There are many uses of Nd and other rare earths in military technologies as well.

A first thing to realize about rare earths is that they’re not actually rare. The 16 that occur naturally are all relatively common in the Earth’s crust. Even the most rare is more common than gold, silver, or cadmium, for instance. This myth is frequently exploited to justify bad behavior in extraction, investment, and international policy. Prof. Julie Klinger’s book Rare Earth Frontiers: From Terrestrial Subsoils to Lunar Landscapes is critical reading for understanding how governments and corporations use the rarity myth to leverage their own interests, with devastating consequences on mining communities across the world.

The word “rare” in rare earths refers to the fact that they’re extremely small concentrations in the deposits where they’re found. Neodymium in particular is found in monazite or bastnäsite, often along with other rare earth minerals and radioactive elements like thorium and uranium. Many rare earth deposits were discovered while countries were attempting to gather more resources for burgeoning nuclear weapons programs.

A rock containing rare earths is not particularly valuable until it’s processed, which it takes a tremendous amount of water and leaves behind massive quantities of toxic sludge. Isolating the good parts often subjects workers to radiation and creates large amounts of water and soil pollution. 

Between 1960 and 1980, most of the mining of rare earths worldwide was in a single mine in Mountain Pass, California, near the Nevada border in the Mojave Desert. The mine, discovered by a uranium prospector in 1949, produced up to 3200 liters of radioactive sludge per minute, which were piped 17 kilometers to an evaporation pond. Thorium and uranium built up within the pipes, and during attempts to clean out the pipes, there were frequent breakages and massive spills. Over a million liters of radioactive waste spilled in seven separate incidents, into federally protected lands and critical habitats for endangered species. The facility was closed in 1998, and a restart attempt in 2012 resulted in another bankruptcy and closure in 2015. The mine has recently reopened and produced 38,000 tons of rare earth oxides in 2020, which is sent to China for processing. New rare earth facilities are planned to open in Texas as well. 

The largest producer of rare earths in the world by far is China. The discussion around rare earth minerals is often plagued by racist, anti-Chinese undertones. Framing in mainstream American media is often militaristic, for example, that the U.S. must “combat” China’s “tight grip” on rare earths. This is perhaps not surprising given military’s hunger for these minerals, but makes the phrasing no less despicable. It’s also ironic for several reasons.

Rare earth mining in China was in part orchestrated by President Richard Nixon’s brother, Edward Nixon, among other American firms, as a way to avoid increasing environmental protection regulations in California. Nixon led some of the business to transfer technology from the U.S. to China, and arranged the purchasing of cheaper processed minerals back in the U.S. This ultimately made U.S. businesses more profits, although it was at the expense of lost jobs for American miners. Mining and processing rare earths under lax environmental restrictions, of course, comes at tremendous environmental cost to the Chinese people.

Poor environmental conditions near rare earth mines have led to cancer clusters, sick farm animals, and land that can no longer be farmed. Acid is sprayed over open ponds in the cheapest process to extract minerals, with up to two tons of toxic waste created in the production of only a single kilogram of minerals. Many villagers have been forced to move away, and others have participated in protests against rare earth mining in China. After a new rare earth operations opened in Guangxi in 2017, locals organized protests, with a particularly large event in May of 2018, over a hundred people strong. Several protesters were injured by authorities and over a dozen were detained. Locals alleged that the authorities had falsified environmental impacts assessments, and were polluting waterways. Later in 2018 and again in 2020, the environmental ministry confirmed the locals’ allegations and required the mining firm to make changes. 

The locations of mining projects is never determined by geology alone. Prospecting occurs in places that are thought to be disposable, or that have a strategic benefit to possess. As stated by Klinger in Rare Earth Frontiers, mining is often “about demonstrating, through high-tech militarized means, the capacity to stake a claim to historically contested and geopolitically significant places rather than about the actual practicalities of establishing mining operations.” Klinger argues that the largest rare earth mining site in the world, Bayan Obo in Inner Mongolia, China, was initially developed to aid in colonizing the disputed region, securing China’s borders and staving off Japanese and Western imperialism, as well as significant resistance from native Mongolians. The mines initially provided iron for the military and uranium for a budding nuclear campaign, while at the same time facilitating the colonization of Inner Mongolia by Han Chinese.

All across the world, Indigenous land is used for mining without the free, prior, informed consent of the Native population. Never simply about the metals, mining has always been a political tool, in service of imperialism. Mining frontiers are continuously pushing outward, and locals are responding with robust resistance campaigns. In 2021 in Greenland, local activism against rare earth and uranium mining resulted in a change in the entire governing coalition. An Australian company, Greenland Minerals, has been planning a new mining operation for neodymium, uranium, and other minerals. Uranium mining was banned in Greenland in 1988, but the decision was reversed in 2013 to accommodate this project. Tremendous sums of money are involved; Greenland Minerals has already invested $300 million, which is one-tenth of Greenland’s annual GDP. Local residents have been concerned about the possibility of radioactive material making its way into the nearby town and the water supply, and effects on fisheries.

Greenland’s coalition government broke apart in February of 2021 due to rising tension about the project. In the subsequent election, the ecosocialist Inuit Ataqatigiit party, which strongly opposed the mine, won the largest share of the vote on a platform that planned to cancel the mine. The Inuit Ataqatigiit party now leads the coalition government, and the mining project is undergoing a review and community consultation, and Greenland Minerals does not plan to attend the next meeting. The company’s stock price has dropped over 50% since the election. 

Actions for Mining Justice

What actions can be taken to assure that the clean energy revolution doesn’t come at the expense of wrecked communities and polluted lands? Here are a list of several ways to help assure that mining is as free of exploitation as possible.

  • When there are local struggles against mining operations, even for minerals used in clean energy, solidarity with the local concerns is important for climate justice.
  • Support strong international standards for mining. 
    • For rare earth elements, industry is only beginning to develop self-governed environmental standards. Ideally, external monitoring would be performed for both environmental impacts and working conditions, each with severe penalties for non-compliance.
  • Expand recycling programs. 
    • There is very little recycling of rare earths and other minerals used in technology. It is well within the power of governments to make producers (like Apple, Samsung, etc for phones) responsible for the end-of-life disposal of equipment, which can include recycling.
  • Pressure companies to ensure responsible supply chains, either at the governmental or consumer levels of action. 
    • This might include targeting investors and banks who profit from the extraction of unsafely mined minerals.
  • Break the cycle of planned obsolescence.
    • Many products are designed to be disposed of within a very short time after purchase, like smartphones. Even though only a small part of a device is broken, repair options might be costly and difficult to schedule. Right-to-repair laws can help consumers assure that equipment can last as long as possible.

Many of the above actions are relevant to any mineral used in green technologies, including nickel, copper, and many others. We’ll discuss the specifics of mining of two important minerals for batteries, lithium and cobalt, later in the book. The Green Rocks newsletter by Ian Morse is an excellent source for keeping up to date on mining justice issues worldwide. 

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La Via Campesina is “an international movement bringing together millions of peasants, small and medium size farmers, landless people, rural women and youth, indigenous people, migrants and agricultural workers from around the world.” Peasant communities feed 70% of the world’s people with only 25% of agricultural resources.

 

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