Wind energy's dirty secret

the 1960s and watched the radioactive lake expand.

“At first it was just a hole in the ground,” he says, but eventually, “It turned into a mountain that towered over us.”

“Anything we planted just withered, then our animals started to sicken and die.”

Villagers nearby also began to suffer from strange side effects. The people of Dalahai say their teeth began to fall out, children were born with brittle bones, and cancer rates dramatically spiked.

Studies conducted five years ago showed that the lake’s radiation levels were ten times as high as the areas around it, and that villagers experienced unusually high rates of cancer, osteoporosis, and skin and respiratory diseases.

The Baogang Group, the state owned enterprise that operates the bulk of the factories in the area, claims it invests millions of dollars each year to protect residents from radioactive waste in addition to processing all the waste before it is emitted.

China rapidly came to dominate the global market for rare Earth materials by largely ignoring environmental considerations and was therefore able to supply these minerals at lower costs. Nations like Australia and the United States ended their mining operations as the environmental and economic factors made it too costly to compete.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the United States was the world’s largest supplier of rare earth minerals. The Mountain Pass mine in California alone, which is slated to reopen as early as next year, produced more than 70 percent of the world’s supply.

As China began to ramp up production, the United States slowly stopped producing rare earths all together. The California mine was eventually closed in 2000.

In recent years, China has disrupted global supply chains by reducing exports and at times stopping shipments all together. In response, the United States is looking to ramp up production once more to secure reliable sources of these minerals.

According to Mark Smith, CEO of Molycorp Minerals, the current owners of the Mountain Pass mine, the extraction process previously used at the mine was both economically and environmentally unsustainable.

Every day as many as twenty tankers were sent up the mountain with volatile chemicals like sulfuric acid, nitric acid, and sodium bicarbonate, while 850 gallons of saltwater a minute was discharged as a byproduct of the mining process.

It was probably a good thing that we were shut down.” Smith says.

This gave the company time to re-evaluate the economic and environmental costs of past procedures. When the mine re-opens it will use a new method to extract rare Earth minerals by using salt water that is reprocessed back into the main chemical mixtures.

While environmentally safer, the industrial process still requires the use of harmful chemicals and toxic waste will still need to be carefully managed, especially as the United States increases production to meet surging demand.

The United States is currently, the second largest producer of wind energy, and with stimulus funding from the Obama administration will likely become the world’s leader once more by the end of the year.

Furthermore, clean energy goals outlined in the president’s state of the union address will likely push the need for rare Earth minerals even higher in coming years.

Like with coal, oil, and other sources of energy, green energy contains hidden economic and environmental costs, despite how clean or renewable it may appear.

For now, there may be no better alternative to the ever widening toxic lakes as wind energy is far more sustainable and cleaner than oil and coal.

According to Craig Bennet, director of policy and campaigns at Friends of the Earth, “Wind energy causes far fewer problems than coal, gas or nuclear,” but, “we need to ensure the use of materials like neodymium and concrete is kept to a minimum, that turbines use recycled materials wherever possible.”

“No way of generating energy is 100 per cent clean and problem-free,” he says.