Ecological Issues Related to REEs

The elements needed to build electronics come first from mining the earth’s crust and refining the rare earth elements. These elements may later be recycled and used over again in the production of new electronics, but in order to get them into that rotation, they are first mined. The environment has pits excavated out of it and radioactive waste created when processing the rare elements. It is safe to say mining for precious metals does not come without consequences and complications, many of them environmental. 

Ivanpah Dry Lake, located in California’s Mojave Desert near the Nevada border, once had water contaminated by radioactive waste dumped into and around it by the hundreds of thousands of gallons. This radioactive waste-water came from one of seven spills produced by a broken pipeline at a rare earth mining facility in the vicinity. That facility, Mountain Pass Mine, halted production following this environmental disaster in 1997. At that time Mountain Pass Mine was one of California’s largest producers of radioactive waste. And it was not the first time Mountain Pass Mine had a problem with handling and spilling radioactive waste-water; it happened in 1994 as well and they were then fined $100,000 by the state of California.[1]   

Coincidentally, also in 1994, congress deemed a portion of the surrounding land to be a national park- the Mojave National Preserve. The national park is known for hiking, lava tubes, dunes, camping and terrific views. 67,000 people visited the park around the time and location of one of Mountain Pass Mine's worst radioactive waste-water spills in 1997. Although difficult to draw any conclusions about the health of the visitors at that time, it is known that radioactive exposure is connected to cases of leukemia and cancer in humans as well as causing health issues in wildlife. [2]
 Big horn sheep, rodents, birds, and reptiles are just some of the wildlife to inhabit the area contaminated by Mountain Pass Mine’s radioactive waste-water spills. Radiation in wildlife causes health problems such as tumors, diseases and complications with reproduction. The area surrounding Mountain Pass Mine is a major habitat for the desert tortoise gopherus agassizii, California’s state reptile. This desert tortoise has an already reduced population and tortoises in general are highly susceptible to radioactive contamination in the earth because they burrow in the ground the waste-water seeps into.[3]

In 2000, Mountain Pass Mine was purchased by Molycorp who pledged to resolve any environmental issues in order to make Mountain Pass operational again. Fully functioning again in 2002, Molycorp boasts precautions have been taken, and will continue to be taken, as they push forward with production. Mountain Pass Mine will still have radioactive waste-water pools, but Molycorp promises changes to the containment of the waste-water such as reducing evaporation of the radioactive water by placing floating plastic on the water’s surface. They have acquired permits to allow them to dig the pit 300 feet deeper, promising a 10% increase in rare earth elements per year.[4] Sure the U.S. will benefit from increased production of rare earth elements, but at what environmental cost?