Tag Archives: rare earths

Human and Environmental Costs of Low-Carbon Technologies

Substantial amounts of raw materials will be required to build new low-carbon energy devices and infrastructure.  Such materials include cobalt, copper, lithium, cadmium, and rare earth elements (REEs)—needed for technologies such as solar photovoltaics, batteries, electric vehicle (EV) motors, wind turbines, fuel cells, and nuclear reactors…  A majority of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a country struggling to recover from years of armed conflict…Owing to a lack of preventative strategies and measures such as drilling with water and proper exhaust ventilation, many cobalt miners have extremely high levels of toxic metals in their body and are at risk of developing respiratory illness, heart disease, or cancer.

In addition, mining frequently results in severe environmental impacts and community dislocation. Moreover, metal production itself is energy intensive and difficult to decarbonize. Mining for copper,and mining for lithium has been criticized in Chile for depleting local groundwater resources across the Atacama Desert, destroying fragile ecosystems, and converting meadows and lagoons into salt flats. The extraction, crushing, refining, and processing of cadmium can pose risks such as groundwater or food contamination or worker exposure to hazardous chemicals. REE extraction in China has resulted  threatens rural groundwater aquifers as well as rivers and streams.

Although large-scale mining is often economically efficient, it has limited employment potential, only set to worsen with the recent arrival of fully automated mines. Even where there is relative political stability and stricter regulatory regimes in place, there can still be serious environmental failures, as exemplified by the recent global rise in dam failures at settling ponds for mine tailings. The level of distrust of extractive industries has even led to countrywide moratoria on all new mining projects, such as in El Salvador and the Philippines.

Traditional labor-intensive mechanisms of mining that involve less mechanization are called artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM). Although ASM is not immune from poor governance or environmental harm, it provides livelihood potential for at least 40 million people worldwide…. It is also usually more strongly embedded in local and national economies than foreign-owned, large-scale mining, with a greater level of value retained and distributed within the country. Diversifying mineral supply chains to allow for greater coexistence of small- and large-scale operations is needed. Yet, efforts to incorporate artisanal miners into the formal economy have often resulted in a scarcity of permits awarded, exorbitant costs for miners to legalize their operations, and extremely lengthy and bureaucratic processes for registration….There needs to be a focus on policies that recognize ASM’s livelihood potential in areas of extreme poverty. The recent decision of the London Metals Exchange to have a policy of “nondiscrimination” toward ASM is a positive sign in this regard.

A great deal of attention has focused on fostering transparency and accountability of mineral mining by means of voluntary traceability or even “ethical minerals” schemes. International groups, including Amnesty International, the United Nations, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, have all called on mining companies to ensure that supply chains are not sourced from mines that involve illegal labor and/or child labor.

Traceability schemes, however, may be impossible to fully enforce in practice and could, in the extreme, merely become an exercise in public relations rather than improved governance and outcomes for miners…. Paramount among these is an acknowledgment that traceability schemes offer a largely technical solution to profoundly political problems and that these political issues cannot be circumvented or ignored if meaningful solutions for workers are to be found. Traceability schemes ultimately will have value if the market and consumers trust their authenticity and there are few potential opportunities for leakage in the system…

Extended producer responsibility (EPR) is a framework that stipulates that producers are responsible for the entire lifespan of a product, including at the end of its usefulness. EPR would, in particular, shift responsibility for collecting the valuable resource streams and materials inside used electronics from users or waste managers to the companies that produce the devices. EPR holds producers responsible for their products at the end of their useful life and encourages durability, extended product lifetimes, and designs that are easy to reuse, repair, or recover materials from. A successful EPR program known as PV Cycle has been in place in Europe for photovoltaics for about a decade and has helped drive a new market in used photovoltaics that has seen 30,000 metric tons of material recycled.

Benjamin K. Sovacool et al., Sustainable minerals and metals for a low-carbon future, Science, Jan. 3, 2020

Who Bears the Costs of Technology? Lynas and Hazardous Waste from Rare Earths

Companies and governments around the world are anxiously watching the fate of a sprawling industrial facility 30 kilometers north of this city on the east coast of peninsular Malaysia.The 100-hectare Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP) produces 10% of the world’s output of rare earth oxides (REOs), minerals needed in technologies including mobile phones, hard drives, fiber optic cables, surgical lasers, and cruise missiles. Lynas, an Australian company, imports concentrated ores from mines on Mount Weld in Australia and refines them in Malaysia, where costs are lower; it sells REOs—which include cerium compounds, used in catalytic converters, and neodymium, critical to permanent magnets—to Japan, the United States, and other countries. The plant produced almost 18,000 tons of REOs in 2018.

Now, the LAMP faces closure, barely 7 years after it opened. Environmental groups have long opposed the storage on the site of slightly radioactive waste from the extraction process, and they found a sympathetic ear in a new government elected in May 2018. In December 2018, the government demanded that the facility ship its radioactive waste back to Australia if it wants to renew its operating license, which expires on 2 September. On 12 March 2019overnment task force to help organize the shipments was announced. But the company says exporting the more than 451,000 tons of residue by the deadline is “unachievable.”

 A shutdown would be “a significant event with a ripple effect,” says Ryan Castilloux, a metals and minerals analyst at Adamas Intelligence in Amsterdam. For one thing, the shutdown would strengthen China’s position as the dominant supplier of REOs, which many countries deem a strategic risk. Japan’s electric vehicle industry, for instance, would lose its main supplier of REOs for permanent magnets; “it would have to reestablish a relationship with China after almost a decade of friction” in the REO trade, Castilloux says…. “Although rare earth oxides production worldwide is only worth several billions of dollars, it is essential for industries worth trillions,” Castilloux says.

Rare earth deposits themselves are not scare..Refining them takes lots of corrosive chemicals and generates huge amounts of residue. China was long the sole supplier; when it reduced exports in 2010, citing environmental concerns, prices jumped as much as 26-fold and major consumers scrambled for alternate sources. Lynas has become a “flagship” of REO production outside China, Castilloux says. The United States and Myanmar mine REEs as well, but they are processed in China, which today produces about 89% of the global REO output…

But in Malaysia, the waste has raised red flags. At the LAMP, concentrated ores are roasted with sulfuric acid to dissolve the rare earths and then diluted with water in a process called water leach purification, leaving a moist, pastelike residue. By September 2018, the LAMP had already produced 1.5 million tons of residue; because the ores contain thorium and uranium, almost 30% of it is slightly radioactive.  Some REO facilities elsewhere have built permanent, secure facilities to store such waste, says Julie Klinger, a geographer and expert in REO mining at Boston University; others are secretive about what they do with it.  Radioactivity isn’t the only risk…heavy metals as ickel, chromium, lead, and mercury could contaminate groundwater.

Excerpts by Yao-Hua, Radioactive waste standoff could slash high tech’s supply of rare earth elements, Science Magazine, Apr. 1, 2019

Rare Earths Pollution: Australia, Malaysia and Lynas Corp.

According to the Oeko Institute, a non-profit association: The facility for refining Australian ore concentrate rich in rare earth metals of Lynas Corporation in Malaysia has several deficiencies concerning the operational environmental impacts. The environment is affected by acidic substances as well as from dust particles, which are emitted into the air in substantially larger concentrations than would be state-of-the-art in off-gas treatment in Europe. The storage of radioactive and toxic wastes on site does not prevent leachate from leaving the facility and entering ground and groundwater. For the long-term disposal of wastes under acceptable conditions concerning radiation safety a sustainable concept is still missing. These are the results of a study of Oeko-Institute on behalf of the Malaysian NGO SMSL.

In its facility in Kuantan/Malaysia Lynas refines ore concentrate for precious rare earth metals. These strategic metals are applied for example to produce catalysts…The ore concentrate to be refined in Malaysia additionally contains toxic and radioactive constituents such as Thorium. The NGO commissioned Oeko-Institute to check whether the processing of the ore leads to hazardous emissions from the plant or will remain as dangerous waste in Malaysia.

Storage of wastes insufficient

The storage of wastes, that are generated in the refining process, shall be stored in designated facilities on the site, separately for three waste categories. According to chemist and nuclear waste expert Gerhard Schmidt, there will be problems with the pre-drying of wastes that is of a high Thorium content. “Especially in the wet and long monsoon season from September to January, this emplacement process doesn’t work”, says Schmidt. “The operator has not demonstrated how this problem can be resolved without increasing the radiation doses for workers”.

Additionally the storages are only isolated with a one-millimeter thick plastic layer and a 30 cm thick clay layer. This is insufficient to reliably enclose the several meters high and wet waste masses. “For the long-term management of these wastes Lynas has urgently to achieve a solution”, claims Gerhard Schmidt, and adds: “in no case those wastes should be marketed or used as construction material, as currently proposed by the operator (Lynas) and the regulator (AELB/MOSTI). According to our calculations this would mean to pose high radioactive doses to the public via direct radiation”.

One of the most serious abnormalities is that in the documents relevant data is missing, which prevents reliably accounting for all toxic materials introduced”, says project manager Gerhard Schmidt. “So it is not stated which and to what amount toxic by-products, besides Thorium, are present in the ore concentrate. Also in the emissions of the facility via wastewater only those constituents are accounted for that are explicitly listed in Malaysian water regulation, but not all emitted substances.” The salt content of the wastewater is as high that it is comparable to seawater. This is discharged without any removal into the river Sungai Balok.

The scientists at Oeko-Institute evaluate the detected deficiencies as very serious. Those deficiencies should have been already detected in the licensing process, when the application documents were being checked. However the operator received a construction license in 2008 and a temporary operating license in 2012.

Especially for the safe long-term disposal of the radioactive wastes a suitable site that meets internationally accepted safety criteria has to be selected urgently. A consensus has to be reached with the affected stakeholders, such as the local public and their representatives. “If it further remains open how to manage those wastes in a long-term sustainable manner, a future legacy associated with unacceptable environmental and health risks is generated”, considers Schmidt. “The liability to prevent those risks and to remove the material is so shifted to future generations, which is not acceptable.”

Rare earths are important metals that are used in future technologies such as efficient electro motors, lighting and catalysts. In its study from 2011 “Study on Rare Earths and Their Recycling” Oeko-Institute showed that no relevant recycling of these metals is performed so far. Albeit recent positive developments in this direction: satisfying the prognosticated global requires the extension of the worldwide primary production.

Rare earth refining in Malaysia without coherent waste management concept, Oeko Institute Press Release, Jan. 28, 2013

See also  Oeko Report on Lynas (pdf)e

The iPhone, radioactive waste and rare earths: the Lynas case

Lynas Corporation, an Australian based mining company are constructing a rare earth processing plant, known as the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP) in Gebeng industrial estate in Kuantan, Malaysia. The LAMP will process lanthanide concentrate which will be trucked from the mine site in Mt Weld Western Australia to the Port of Fremantle where it will be shipped to Malaysia. This report provides an assessment of the emissions from the LAMP plant rather than Lynas Corporation‟s activities in Western Australia. The LAMP plant will have significant atmospheric, terrestrial and waterborne emissions of toxic chemicals and radionuclides including uranium, thorium and radon gas.

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A Malaysian high court put on hold until October 4 a temporary operating license granted to Lynas Corp Ltd’s controversial rare earth plant near the eastern city of Kuantan, prompting an 8 percent fall in the Australian firm’s shares on Tuesday (Sept. 24, 2012).  The rare earth plant – the world’s biggest outside China – has been ready to fire up since early May, but the company has been embroiled in lengthy environmental and safety disputes with local residents since construction began two years ago [regarding the handling of radioactive waste at the plant].

The plant is considered important to breaking China’s grip on the processing of rare earths, which are used in products ranging from smartphones to hybrid cars.

Lynas confirmed the Kuantan High Court’s decision on Tuesday, but said it would not affect production at the plant and that it plans to strongly assert its rights at the next court hearing…Lynas shares plunged more than 8 percent after the court order to A$0.795, their lowest close in almost three weeks as investors closely track each move in the sensitive case. Earlier this month they rose up to 50 percent when Malaysia approved the license.

Activists linked to the environmental group, Save Malaysia Stop Lynas, want the court to suspend the temporary license until two judicial review cases challenging the government’s decision allowing the plant to operate are heard.  “It’s a small victory, but there is still a long way to go,” Tan Bun Teet, a spokesman for the group, told Reuters after the court decision. “We will fight tooth and nail. We have a lot at stake,” he added.  The group’s previous attempts to legally stop the plant had failed.

Lynas received a temporary operating license for its long-delayed $800 million rare earth plant earlier this month, enabling it to start production as early as October.  The Malaysian Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB) issued the permit following an earlier recommendation from a government committee.  Protests over possible radioactive residue have drawn thousands of people and the project has become a hot topic ahead of an election that must be held by early next year.

Sources

Lee Bell, Rare Earth and Radioactive Waste: A Preliminary Waste Stream Assessment of the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant, Gebeng, Malaysia, National Toxics Network. April 2012

Siva Sithraputhran, Malaysian court puts license on hold for Lynas rare earth plant, Reuters, Sept. 25, 2012