Rare Earth elementsWind energy's dirty secret

Published 10 February 2011

Vast tracts of land have been turned into toxic wastelands to fuel the increasing demand for green energy; rare Earth metals like neodymium are critical components in wind turbines and electric cars, but the process to extract them is damaging to the environment; China, the world’s largest supplier of rare Earth metals, has largely ignored environmental considerations and left Inner Mongolia a widening sea of radioactive waste; the United States is currently ramping up production of rare Earth minerals, but is seeking to find more sustainable production methods; wind power still has fewer environmental repercussions than coal or oil

Nations across the world have come increasingly to tout wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources as the clean and renewable way of the future. Lurking behind the facade of clean energy lays a dirty secret: the devastating environmental costs to produce green technologies like wind turbines and electric motors.

An exposé by the U.K.’s Daily Mail highlights the environmental damage caused by producing the key technology that environmental advocates hope will power the future.

In recent years, wind turbines and electric engines have become far more efficient and powerful thanks to the introduction of rare Earth metals like neodymium.

As a result, demand for these metals have sky rocketed as more and more nations have begun to expand their use of renewable energy in an attempt to cut down on carbon emissions.

China has emerged as the world’s primary supplier of these metals, accounting for more than 95 percent of global exports.

Within China, Inner Mongolia contains more than 90 percent of the world’s legal reserves of rare Earth minerals and has particularly high concentrations of neodymium. To feed the world’s growing appetite for these metals, large industrial mines and factories have sprung up to extract these minerals.

Along with these factories have come vast lakes of toxic waste that poison the air and water, ravage livestock, and cause cancer and other grave illnesses in people living nearby.

Jamie Choi, an expert on toxics with Greenpeace China, explains that, “There’s not one step of the rare earth mining process that is not disastrous for the environment. Ores are being extracted by pumping acid into the ground, and then they are processed using more acid and chemicals.”

The by-products of this process are then dumped into “tailing lakes,” large open pits to house toxic waste.

These tailing lakes are often poorly constructed and maintained, resulting in dangerous health risks for those living nearby.

In Baotou, where many of China’s rare Earth factories are located, a massive tailing lake has rapidly grown. Each year seven million tons of mined rare earths, acid, and other chemicals are dumped there.

The lake is 100 feet high and grows by three feet a year.

These highly toxic acids, heavy metals, and other chemicals have polluted the air, leaked into the ground, and poisoned water supplies, making it impossible for villages nearby to grow crops, raise cattle, or drink local water.

Su Bairen, a retired local farmer, has lived near the factories since they first sprang up in