Dec 19, 2012
intern reporter Liu Zhiyi
There's a load of precious minerals
lying in a gigantic tailings pond, but straining out the
rare earths remains a difficult task
(Beijing) -- One crack in a wall is all it would take for a
dark gray oval that sits across 11 square kilometers of land
to create a massive disaster.
Situated just to the west of Baotou, a city in the
resource-rich region of Inner Mongolia, the mine dump for
Baotou Iron and Steel Group (Baosteel) is enclosed by a
concrete wall that stands 20 meters high. It is one of
China's largest tailings pools, and contains roughly 180
million tons of metal waste powder.
recently, few outside the city knew about the mine dump,
which was created 60 years ago. The mine has gained
attention on reports that the hazardous slurry contains
large amounts of rare earths and other minerals, estimated
by some to have a total value as high as 80 trillion yuan.
But the dump has attracted its share of negative news as
well. At least 4,000 hectares of farmland have already been
contaminated by seepage. Over 130 hectares of farmland are
unable to support crops or have extremely low output.
number of villagers living nearby have also cited several
health problems which they attribute to poor controls on the
Market Value of Pollution
distance, the dump looks much like a dark, shining lake.
Close-up, a network of small pipes leads to one large pipe
at the center of the pool, and extrudes a continuous stream
of brownish-black tailings water.
Baosteel Rare Earth Research Institute Director Ma Pengqi
said the resource value of the tailings pool is equivalent
to the Bayan Obo iron ore mine in Baotou, the world's
largest rare earths deposit with approved reserves of 36
million tons, 36 percent of the world's total.
study conducted by the company, researchers found that the
proportion of rare earths in the 180 million tons of slag
was higher than the total estimated reserves of raw ore in
Bayan Obo. The average grade of rare earths is much more
concentrated at 7 percent in the tailings, compared to 5.5
percent in raw ore.
conducted research on the pool for decades and estimates
that the total commercial value of the tailings pond is over
1 trillion yuan, with 500 billion from rare earths and over
600 billion in other mineral deposits.
scholars point out that the Baosteel tailings pool was the
result of inefficient mining practices, and the by-product
created will make further mineral extraction more
Baosteel was established in the 1950s, the steel mill and
ore processing plant had to be put 100 kilometers away from
the Bayan Obo mining site on the outskirts of Baotou near
the Yellow River as the mining site lacked water resources.
The mine dump was built near the steel mill.
Official documents show that currently the Baosteel ore
processor discharges between 7 million to 8 million tons of
tailings into the pool each year. In addition, Baosteel's
rare earth subsidiary and smelter plant also discharges 2.1
million cubic meters of toxic wastewater into the pool each
wasn't until the end of the 1970s that the environmental
impact caused by the tailings pool began to show. Inner
Mongolia University of Science and Technology Professor Wang
Jianying said that due to water pressure and other reasons,
a large amount of saline sewage leaked through the soil and
into what is known as the phreatic layer, or the first
stable layer of water below the earth's surface. Nearby
groundwater became heavily contaminated.
seepage had an immediate effect on the environment. Farm
yields declined and today much of the land lies abandoned.
Groundwater cannot be used for irrigation or human or animal
consumption. More than seven villages with over 3,000
residents and 300 hectares of land have been affected.
Moreover, Wang said, the contamination is expanding
underground and approaching to the Yellow River at a speed
of 20 to 30 meters annually.
Dalahai Village is 1.5 kilometers to the west of the
Baosteel tailings pool. According to data from the Baotou
Environmental Monitoring Station for the years 1995, 2000
and 2006, the sulfate, chloride and fluoride content of well
water in the village exceeds national irrigation water
quality standards by several dozen times.
Potential Radioactive Harms
local governments and environmentalists say that above all
else, the largest environmental concern is the radioactive
hazard presented by the mine dump.
results of a survey published by Sun Qinghong, researcher of
the China Institute of Radiation Protection, show that that
radiation in areas close to the tailings pool is higher than
the Baotou urban area by varying degrees. To the south and
southeast of the tailings pool, levels are elevated
have been a number of tailings dam breaches in recent years.
If such a breach occurred at the Baosteel tailings dam, the
consequences for Baotou, the largest city in Inner Mongolia,
and the Yellow River would be disastrous. The tailings pool
is also in an earthquake-prone area.
those in the rare earths industry, there have been calls for
the government and Baosteel to use new technologies to
extract rare earths while at the same time gradually
reducing the possible environmental risks of the tailings
2010, Baosteel Technology Center Assistant Engineer Zhang
Yong and Baosteel Rare Earth Research Institute Director Ma
Pengqi wrote a joint article describing a new tailings
utilization process, which, according to the paper, would
recycle up to 87 percent of rare earths from the tailings
said that the new technology hasn't been put into practice.
"There isn't any hardware or facilities to support the
application of the new technology. Currently it's only a
method is good enough, but if no one uses it, what can you
do?" Ma said. "There is no sense of urgency."
former Baosteel Research Institute source who asked not to
be named said the iron ore that Baosteel has mined in the
past is mainly rare-earth associated ore. The source said
that based on an annual production of 10 million tons of
steel and a 5 to 6 percent proportion of associated ore,
Baosteel could produce approximately 500,000 to 600,000 tons
of rare earths annually. But the global demand for rare
earths is only several hundred thousand tons.
the amount of rare earths recovered with current technology
for iron ore extraction is still high, there is no profit
motive for Baosteel or the local government to spend huge
sums extracting rare earths from the tailings pool.
Professor Zhang Xuefeng of the Inner Mongolia University of
Science and Technology, who has researched rare earths
pollution and the reuse of metallurgical refuse, said
Baosteel should first refine the rare earths in the ore and
then refine steel, which would improve the utilization of
rare earths at the source. This is the best way to improve
smelting efficiency and reduce pollution, according to
current situation is that (Baosteel) first processes iron
and then processes rare earths, while valuable minerals such
as niobium get dumped," Zhang said.
also added that Baosteel should reduce the extraction of raw
ore. "The company should supply rare earth according to the
market demand. Then safeguard the mine as a national and
Publicly available information shows that at Baosteel's
current extraction rate, the Bayan Obo mine will be emptied
of rare earths in 25 years.
Between 2005 and 2006, Xu Guangxian, an academic at the
Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, sent letters to State
Council scholars making similar proposals to cut down on
mining in Bayan Obo and find a way to process metals in the
mine dump. However, so far the local government has not
issued any policies to address the dump, he said.