Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Rare Earth Metals Industry Versus Mother Nature

Is it really worth compromising established environmental laws in the name of easier rare earth metal access for the whole world?

By: Ringo Bones

Thanks to The People’s Republic of China’s strategic stranglehold of the global rare earth metals supply, countries denied easy access to rare earths could resort to disregarding established legal precedents protecting the environment. A case in point is the latest courtroom battle between the Australian owned Lynas Rare Earth Plant and the local political constituency and environmentalist of Kuantan, Malaysia.  As the local court is on an ongoing negotiation to whether allow Lynas a permanent application to run the plant, environmental concerns cast a long shadow over the proceedings given that a similar rare earth metals processing plant located near the place was closed down 18 years ago for failure to comply with preexisting environmental laws. 

Given that The People’s republic of China controls about 97% of the global rare earth metals mining and processing, any country with a beef with the Beijing government – either on the issue of Tibet, human rights or unfair international trade practices – has no other choice but to put ethics in second place over access to the coveted rare earth metals commodities. But will restarting rare earth metals mining and processing facilities elsewhere in the world even though they don’t quite pass muster the rather stringent local environmental laws be a better option?

Even though Malaysia’s Lynas Rare Earth Plant is the biggest rare earth metals processing and refining facility outside of Mainland China, its operation has been more or less on hold since May 2012 due to environmental concerns voiced by local environmental activists and the local inhabitants of Kuantan - by the way, Kuantan is the capital of Pahang, Malaysia's third largest state. Both locals and environmentalists are currently picketing the plant due to concerns over lack of oversight when it comes to the safe disposal of the low-level radioactive wastes which are a by-product of rare earth metal purification and processing. The thorium and radon gas content of the overburden in a typical rare earth metals processing plant has a radioactivity level sufficient enough to increase the likelihood of cancer on any persons exposed to it for a prolonged period of time. Will more stringent disposal of low-level radioactive wastes still make the rare earth metals produced by the Malaysian Lynas plant be still cost-competitive compared to ones made by Mainland China?

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