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this problem is not only that BSG has no incentive to clean up their act, but also, their current processing method is outdated and not at all environmentally friendly.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.