Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Rare Earth - From China To Malaysia

People Pay Price For World's Rare Earths Addiction

BAOTOU, China--Peasant farmer Wang Tao used to grow corn, potatoes and wheat within a stone's throw of a dumping ground for rare earths waste until toxic chemicals leaked into the water supply and poisoned his land.

Farmers living near the 10-square-kilometer expanse in northern China say they have lost teeth and their hair has turned white while tests show the soil and water contain high levels of cancer-causing radioactive materials.

“We are victims. The tailings dam has contaminated us,” Wang, 60, told AFP at his home near Baotou city in Inner Mongolia, home to the world's largest deposits of rare earths, which are vital in making many high-tech products.

“In this place, if you eat the contaminated food or drink the contaminated water it will harm your body,” Wang said, pointing towards lifeless fields now strewn with rubbish around Dalahai village, a few hundred meters from the dump.

China produces more than 95 percent of the world's rare earths — 17 elements used in the manufacture of products ranging from iPods to flat-screen televisions and electric cars.
Two-thirds of that is processed in mineral-rich Baotou on the edge of the Gobi desert.

Environmental groups have long criticized rare earths mining for spewing toxic chemicals and radioactive thorium and uranium into the air, water and soil, which can cause cancer and birth defects among residents and animals.

Beijing, keen to burnish its green credentials and tighten its grip over the highly sought-after metals, has started cleaning up the industry by closing illegal mines, setting tougher environmental standards and restricting exports.

But Wang and the other farmers in Dalahai blame state-owned giant Baogang Group, China's largest producer of rare earths and a major iron ore miner and steel producer, for poisoning their fields and ruining their livelihoods.

Strong winds whip across the dump's millions of tonnes of waste, blowing toxic and radioactive materials towards surrounding villages.

“It is the pollution from the tailings dam,” Wang Er, 52, told AFP, pointing a dirty finger at his spiky hair which started turning white 30 years ago.

Baogang, which has rare earths and iron ore refineries stretching for about seven kilometers along a road in the area, did not respond to AFP requests for comment.

But a 2006 study by local environment authorities showed levels of thorium, a by-product of rare earths processing, in Dalahai's soil were 36 times higher than other areas of Baotou, state media have reported. 

“People are suffering severely,” the Chinese-language National Business Daily said in December, citing the official study. 
Sixty-six villagers died of cancer between 1993 and 2005 while crop yields fell “substantially.”

“There is not one step of the rare earth mining process that is not disastrous to the environment,” Greenpeace China's toxics campaign manager Jamie Choi said in a recent report.
Choi said the impact of the government crackdown depends on whether it is “implemented properly.”

But the environmental damage already caused by rare earths mining in China could be irreversible, according to Wang Guozhen, a former vice president of the government-linked China Nonferrous Engineering and Research Institute.

As demand for rare earths soars, China is slashing export quotas. 

Analysts say Beijing wants to drive up global prices and preserve the metals for its own burgeoning high-tech industries.
The moves have prompted complaints from foreign high-tech producers while the United States and Australia have responded by developing or reopening mines shuttered when cheaper Chinese supplies became available.

Several kilometers from the massive dumping ground is the privately-owned Baotou City Hong Tianyu Rare Earths Factory — one of dozens of operators processing rare earths, iron and coal in a dusty no-man's land.

Workers wearing blue uniforms and army camouflage runners inhale toxic fumes as huge spinning steel pipes process tonnes of rare earths bound for high-tech manufacturers in China, Japan, the United States and elsewhere.

A production manager surnamed Wang told AFP the factory produces “several thousand tonnes of rare earths a year” and the toxic waste is piped to another dumping ground in the area.

The desolate fields around Wang's village have been left fallow as farmers wait for government compensation. Some appear to have fled already, with empty houses and shops along dusty roads falling into disrepair.

Authorities have offered to pay farmers 60,000 yuan per mu (US$9,200 per 0.067 hectares) so they can move to a new village four kilometers away. 

But they won't have land to till and the farmers say the compensation is inadequate. 

Source: China Post - Monday, May 2, 2011


Twenty Years On, Malaysia Makes Another Rare Earth Bet 
By Shannon Teoh

A worker waters the site of a rare earth metals mine in Jiangxi. China holds a virtual monopoly on rare earth supply. — file pic
KUALA LUMPUR, March 9 — Malaysia is gambling on a new processing plant in Kuantan to produce metals possibly worth over RM5 billion a year, nearly two decades after protests forced Mitsubishi Chemicals to close down a rare earth plant near Ipoh due to environmental damage — damage which it is still trying to clean up today. A New York Times (NYT) report said today Australian mining company Lynas’s refinery in Kuantan could break China’s chokehold on rare earth metals that are crucial to high technology products such as Apple’s iPhone, the Toyota Prius and Boeing’s smart bombs, said the newspaper.
“If rare earth prices stay at current lofty levels, the refinery will generate US$1.7 billion (RM5 billion) a year in exports starting late next year, equal to nearly one per cent of the entire Malaysian economy,” the newspaper said.
“But as Malaysia learned the hard way a few decades ago, refining rare earth ore usually leaves thousands of tons of low-level radioactive waste behind,” it added, referring to a plant in Bukit Merah.
The Bukit Merah Asian Rare Earth plant near Ipoh was also reported by the New York Times to be still quietly undergoing a US$100 million cleanup exercise despite shutting down in 1992.
The New York Times reported that as many as 2,500 workers are rushing to complete a US$230 million plant in Gebeng, near Kuantan, that will refine slightly radioactive ore from Australia.
It said it will be the first such plant outside China in nearly three decades as the rest of the world became wary of the environmental hazards, leaving China to control 95 per cent of global supply of the rare metals.
Beijing’s recent moves to limit exports of rare earth has propelled world prices of the material to record highs, sending industrial countries scrambling for alternatives, the report continued.
This has spurred Australian mining company Lynas to rush the refinery, which it says will meet nearly a third of the world’s demand for rare earth materials.
According to the NYT, the Malaysian government was eager for the investment by Lynas, even offering a 12-year tax holiday.
It quoted Raja Datuk Abdul Aziz bin Raja Adnan, the director-general of the Malaysian Atomic Energy Licensing Board, who said the project was only approved after an inter-agency review.
He said the report indicated that the imported ore and subsequent waste would have low enough levels of radioactivity to be manageable and safe.
“We have learned we shouldn’t give anybody a free hand,” Raja Adnan told the newspaper.
However, toxicologist Dr. Jayabalan A. Thambyappa, who has treated leukaemia victims whose illnesses he and others have attributed to the Mitsubishi plant, contends that low or not, exposure to such material remains hazardous.
“The word ‘low’ here is just a matter of perception — it’s a carcinogen,” said Dr Jayabalan.
The Bukit Merah plant was opened by Japanese company Mitsubishi Chemicals in 1985, before being shuttered in 1992 following years of protests by residents concerned with pollution, the NYT said.
Rare earths, a group of 17 elements found near the bottom of the periodic table, are not radioactive themselves.
But virtually every rare earth ore deposit around the world contains, in varying concentrations, a slightly radioactive element called thorium.

Source: The Malaysian Insider - Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Malaysians Don’t Need Rare Earth Plant

I AM amazed that Nicholas Curtis of Lynas can say that there is no risk to his country’s nuclear waste that he wants to keep here in Malaysia (“Firm assures public of ‘zero radiation exposure’” – The Star, April 13).
His own fellow Australians don’t agree with him. He cannot take the waste back to Australia, so he will try and persuade Malaysians to let him keep his dangerous by-product here.
He and his family don’t have to live next to the rare earth plant in Kuantan. So it is easy for him to say what he has to say to do what he wants.
He cannot simply turn Malaysia into an international toxic waste dump. Some Australian MPs are now very concerned about the radiation from the nuclear waste from Lynas’ proposed project. Our leaders in Malaysia must not let the people down.
Malaysians are not less educated or less knowledgeable than Australians. We are not less health conscious.
Malaysians cannot be fooled so easily by the soothing words of a company producing controversial and hazardous by-products.
If Lynas cannot help produce toxic waste, and it cannot find any country willing to store its waste, it should return to its own country to do business. Otherwise it should switch to another line of business.
There is already some controversy surrounding Lynas’ application for a licence from the Atomic Energy Licensing Board. We don’t need more controversies here.
Malaysians also don’t need a rare earth plant that its home country won’t accept. Thank you very much.
Kuala Lumpur.

Source: The Star - April 15, 2011


BaitiBadarudin said...

Hi Ummie,
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Ummie said...

In the name of modern world, advance technology, empathy is the last (if there is) thing in one's mind.
Maybe that Amir Hussein has the same feeling as I do now.

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