Some History About REEs

Because of the strategic importance of rare earths, both in terms of energy and military applications and due to China’s dominance in the rare earths market, the US has become increasingly concerned about the supply of rare earths. The stated approach of the US federal government is to increase recycling and reuse of rare earths, to develop alternatives and substitutes to rare earths, and to mine more rare earths domestically. All but one of the 17 rare earth elements are listed on the 2021 draft list of critical minerals put out by the Department of Interior, and Executive Orders were signed in both 2017 and 2020 which directed relevant agencies to “accelerate the issuance of permits” to mine rare earths.

Serious environmental problems have attended rare earth mining in the US, China, and elsewhere. The issues with waste and contamination in rare earth mining are similar to issues with other hardrock mining, with the addition of radioactivity from the often-present thorium and uranium. The greatest risks are usually to surface and groundwater, but air, soil, and sediments can also be threatened. Rare earths mining in various parts of China has produced disastrous impacts, including heavy metal pollution that has contaminated both surface and groundwater. At the ionic clay rare earths mines of southern China, where in situ or solution mining is employed, for every ton of rare earth extracted, 300 m2 of vegetation and topsoil are removed, 2000 tons of tailings are disposed in nearby valleys or streams, and 1000 tons of highly polluted wastewater containing ammonium sulfate and heavy metals is created, according to a 2013 paper by Chinese researchers.

The Bayan Obo area of Inner Mongolia, northern China, features similar geology as Mountain Pass in California and the Bear Lodge rare earth deposit in the western Black Hills in Wyoming. Plants, soil, air, and water at Bayan Obo have been contaminated from the underground and open-pit mining operations, resulting in respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, leukemia, lung and liver cancers, and other illnesses for mine workers, residents, and nearby animals. Bayan Obo now has an 11-square-kilometer (4.25 sq miles) toxic waste pond with high concentrations of thorium, and one of the villages nearby is referred to as a “death village” because of all the cancer-related deaths in the early 2000s.

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