By Amy Oliver and Michael Sandoval
In previous columns, we’ve exposed that “renewable” technology is neither renewable, nor clean, nor green because it relies upon rare earth elements—it’s also neither cost effective nor efficient but that’s another column. Currently the Chinese have a stranglehold over all phases of rare earth production, including mining, processing, and refining. China accounts for ninety five percent of the world market in rare earth elements (REEs).
With virtually no regulations or concerns over worker safety, the Chinese monopoly has resulted in an ecological disaster. Sites such as those in Baotou, Inner Mongolia make the Love Canal, the impetus for the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Superfund,” look like Rocky Mountain National Park.
Finally, we’ve been able to quantify the pollution of some green technology sectors in a way that makes sense to the average American family sitting at their kitchen table.
The Math of Pollution
The U.S. Department of Energy, in studying the reductions of REEs available in the world market due to Chinese cutbacks, has identified the seventeen elements as “key” and “critical” to ongoing technological development, including use in electronic components for defense purposes, but also for the “clean” green energy sector.
The DOE’s efforts prompted the Environmental Protection Agency to examine the development of REE resources here in the U.S., paying particular attention to the economic feasibility but also the more important question of—you guessed it—environmental impact.
In its August 2011 study, “Investigating Rare Earth Element Mine Development in EPA Region 8 and Potential Environmental Impacts,” the EPA reported on several sites located in the intermountain West, from Idaho to Colorado, which could become only the second REE mining operation in the entire country.
The study also reported extensively on the possible sources of contaminants and waste byproducts associated with all mining, and especially those concentrated in REE-related extraction.
In the section titled “Potential Risks to Human Health and the Environment,” the EPA reports that:
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