Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Not So Environmentally Friendly Rare Earth Metals Industry

How much can the modern industrialized world compromise established environmental legislations for easier access to rare earth metals?

By: Ringo Bones

A few days ago, the Australian owned Lynas Rare Earth Plant – the biggest rare earth metals processing/refining facility outside of Mainland China – was seeking a permanent permit to stay operational despite of local environmentalists and residents of Kuantan, Malaysia protesting their concerns over doubts of Lynas’ ability to safely dispose the resulting low-level radioactive wastes that results in rare earth metals processing. And there’s a likelihood that the local court judges of Kuantan may side with the environmentalists and residents because 18 years ago, a rare earth metals plant located elsewhere in Malaysia was given a court order to cease operation after its inability to properly dispose off the resulting low level radioactive wastes that contain non-commercially extractable residues of thorium and radon gas that eventually gave cancer to nearby residents. Given its bad environmental track record, is the rare earth industry inherently less than Earth friendly and is hazardous to human health?  

Thanks to the Beijing government’s stranglehold on the global supply of rare earth metals now indispensable to the production of everything from modern computers, wind turbines and environmentally friendly hybrid cars. By the way, Mainland China currently controls 97% of the world’s commercially used rare earth metals supply so doubly bad news to those countries with concerns over the Beijing government’s handling of local pro-democracy activists and the Tibetan freedom issue; Thus making more enlightened nation-states to seek other sources of rare earth metals not tainted by “despotism” and giving green light to mining firms to develop their own rare earth metals mining and refining schemes. Unfortunately, environmental concerns seem to be relegated to the wayside in the search of rare earth metals sources not under the stranglehold of the less-than-friendly Beijing government. 

The Australian owned Lynas has been developing its rare earth metals mining and processing abilities for the past 10 years in order to become the biggest rare earth metals producer outside of Mainland China. Unfortunately, the local court judges at their Kuantan plant eventually bowed to environmental pressures put forth by both the activists and the local residents. Given the current environmental hurdles faced by the rare earth metals industry, will their tenured chemists at their research and development facilities be able to develop a more “Earth-Friendly” way to mine and process rare earth metals?

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