Chasing Mirages

Dongjiang Expedition Part 5: Rare earth hell

by on Nov.17, 2013, under Posts

China’s rare earth metal production is a complex issue with implications at every scale of governance, from tiny villages to international treaty organizations.  This recent NYTimes article provides a summary of the issue over the last few years.

Our journey into rare earth territory in northern Guangdong and southern Jiangxi provinces reminded me of the wild wild west I had read about as a kid – clandestine mining operations, gun battles between outlaw gangs struggling for territory and even violent clashes between artisanal miners and authorities trying to shut down illegal mines.

As soon as we drove into the jurisdiction of Xincun Village (新村村) in northern Heyuan (河源市,龍川縣,上坪鎮), we noticed a palpable tension in the air.  All of the villagers passing us on motorbikes eyed us suspiciously.  The locals clearly did not welcome strangers.  We stopped to investigate some unusual holes at the foot of a mountain that looked like wooden poles could be inserted into them to form an elevated walkway.   A car stopped across the road and stayed there until we continued driving, and soon afterward a motorcycle started following us.

We drove up a mountain and eventually the road narrowed near the top of a small hill.  A young man on a motorcycle blocked our way.  We stopped and asked him whether we could get to the bank of Dongjiang by following the road, and he shook his head no, the road ended in a village and reservoir, so we had better turn back.   The motorcycle that had been following us caught up and stopped, and the two guys riding it stared at us silently.  In a moment of supreme awkwardness, our geology expert (also driving our vehicle) yelled loudly “NO MINES HERE!”, rolled up the window, and turned around.  The rest of us gave him a ton of shit for doing that, but fortunately it wasn’t a fatal mistake.  I guess his odd exclamation bewildered, rather than alerted, the motorcycle riders.  They stopped following us, apparently trusting that we just wanted to get back to Dongjiang.

Of course, we weren’t ready to leave, so we explored some other roads.  At the top of another mountain, we came upon another motorcycle rider, this time a middle-aged guy.  A huge mine was clearly visible on a nearby mountain, so we asked him what was going on over there.  “They’re planting tangerines,” he told us.   We asked him whether there was any mining in the area, and his face dropped.  He literally looked like he was about to cry.  He kept looking away, afraid to look us in the eye.  It was really weird and kind of sad.  We left him alone with his demons.

We continued on, hoping to reach the large mine, but couldn’t find our way.  We saw a woman walking along the road and stopped to ask directions, but she looked like she was about to piss her pants and could do nothing but repeat “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.”  These odd interactions convinced our geologist that we needed to explore the first blocked road again, so we returned and this time, nobody was there to stop us.

It turned out that the young man hadn’t been lying.  The road did end in a village and reservoir.  More importantly, however, we found this:

Artisanal rare earth mine. The reservoir's dam is in the background on the right.

I think the ammonia smell was coming from this liquid

The smell of ammonia was overpowering.  These “artisanal” mines are completely unregulated and have no pollution mitigating measures.  The unused waste and toxic byproducts are left to evaporate into the air, leach into the soil, and run off into surface water.  Indeed, just downhill of the mine was the reservoir.

This reservoir was less than 100 meters downhill from the mine

We stayed at a hotel in the town center of Shangping (上坪鎮) and in the morning noticed that every single car in this town, including cars carrying families,  either did not have license plates or had covered plates.

We made our way to a huge open-pit mine that we had spotted on Google Maps.  It turned out not to be a rare earth mine, so we turned back.  On our way down the mountain, we were stopped by a pick-up truck and a couple of motorcycles.  The driver of the pick-up claimed to be a regular townsperson who was friends with the mayor.  He explained that rare earth mining had ceased the previous March when the government had cracked down on illegal mining and three bosses had been imprisoned.  He offered to take us to meet the town’s mayor.  A couple of our group went in his pick-up and the rest of us said we’d catch up.  We stayed behind to poke around a bit more.

We found a road that had been crudely blockaded by rocks.  We cleared the blockade and continued.  Down the road was a relatively large-scale rare-earth mining operation that looked abandoned.  The sad part was that nothing was being done to rehabilitate the land.  The erosion was dramatic, and who knows what toxins remained in the soil.

Homemade vat for some sort of chemical processing. Inside was a pinkish silty paste. Note the runoff.

A larger plastic-lined processing pool

The leftmost bag reads “硫酸", sulfuric acid

Terraced processing pools. Note the agricultural fields at lower elevations

Terraced processing pools from below

Severely eroded hillside. Note the exposed soil and deep water-carved gullies

Back in town, we had lunch with some of the town’s government officials.  Everyone had their stories straight and they were outwardly friendly, but they were tight-lipped about mining.  The “townsperson” was much more willing to talk, perhaps to the chagrin of his government buddies.  He quoted us prices for dirt containing rare-earth metals (16 yuan per kilogram), and alluded to the fact that it was still brought down the mountains and sold every night.  The officials said that no rare earth metal mining was permitted anymore, but it was possible that locals were still picking out the remnants left over from abandoned operations.

We followed up on the holes in the side of the mountain and found that they are reported to be part of an insidious new rare earth mining technique.  Holes are drilled hundreds of meters horizontally into the mountain, and additional holes are drilled vertically.  Solvents are forced into the holes at higher elevations, dissolving rare earth metals in the soil.  The rare earth containing liquid flows down with gravity and comes out of the holes at the foot of the mountain.  This process is difficult to detect and impossible to regulate.  Its impact on the environment is severe because the solvents literally permeate the soil, where they easily percolate into surface and ground water.

To be continued…

:, , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Looking for something?

Use the form below to search the site: