Thursday, December 30, 2010

In China, Illegal Rare Earth Mines Face Crackdown

Via (Dec 29, 2010) -

The elderly rice farmer was leading three outsiders into an illegal quarry to show them the gangster-run mine that has poisoned his village’s fields and streams.

Suddenly, a blue Hyundai sport utility vehicle sped up to them in a cloud of red dust. A Toyota pickup pulled up behind, its windows tinted too dark to see how many people might be inside.

“Shove off!” the Hyundai driver screamed at the old man and his visitors, who included an American reporter. “We’re going to carve all of you up, slaughter all of you and burn your car!”

The stooped farmer, Song Zuokai, 81, grunted and began shuffling out of the quarry with his jittery guests.

Such threats are all too common in this region of southern China, long plagued by gangsters who illegally mine some of the world’s most sought-after industrial metals. The gangs reap profits that can rival drug money, while leaving pollution and violence in their wake.

What is new are efforts by China’s national and provincial governments to crack down on the illegal mines, to which local authorities have long turned a blind eye. The efforts coincide with a decision by Beijing to reduce legal exports as well, including an announcement by China’s commerce ministry on Tuesday that export quotas for all rare earth metals will be 35 percent lower in the early months of next year than in the first half of this year.

Rogue operations in southern China produce an estimated half of the world’s supply of heavy rare earths, which are the most valuable kinds of rare earth metals. Heavy rare earths are increasingly vital to the global manufacture of a range of high-technology products — including iPhones, BlackBerrys, flat-panel televisions, lasers, hybrid cars and wind-power turbines, as well as a lot of military hardware.

China mines 99 percent of the global supply of heavy rare earths, with legal, state-owned mines mainly accounting for the rest of China’s output. That means the Chinese government’s only effective competitors in producing these valuable commodities are the crime rings within the country’s borders.

And so Beijing, intent on maintaining its global chokehold on all rare earths, has begun an energetic campaign to crush the crime syndicates that dominate the open-pit mines in this part of Guangdong Province, home to most of southern China’s mining areas for heavy rare earths.

Whatever dent the crackdown may make in pollution and violence, industry executives say the effort is already putting additional crimps in global supplies of rare earths — whose exports Beijing has jealously controlled and whose prices have soared in response to rising industrial demand and a dearth of supply alternatives to China.

“We do believe that this source of supply is diminishing, and there is some evidence leakage over the border into Vietnam is diminishing,” said Judith Chegwidden, a managing director specializing in rare earths at Roskill Consulting Group in London.

Prices have soared for rare earth elements mined almost exclusively here in the red clay hills of southern China: dysprosium, terbium and europium.

According to a new United States Energy Department report, the most important of these for clean energy is dysprosium. Its price is now $132 a pound, compared with $6.50 a pound in 2003.


In the last few months, the government has deployed helicopter patrols to spot illegal mines. Teams of dozens of police officers have conducted raids into the hills of northern Guangdong and arrested at least 100 owners and managers of rare earth mines and refineries, said a Chinese mining expert who insisted on anonymity because of the issue’s political risks. Government workers equipped with blowtorches have accompanied the police to cut apart illegal mining equipment and either seize it or distribute it to peasants for sale as scrap.

Chinese officials declined requests for comment.

The gangs have terrorized villagers who dare to complain about the many tons of sulfuric acid and other chemicals being dumped into streambeds during the processing of ore. Illegal rare earth mining and chemical runoff have poisoned thousands of acres of prime farmland, according to the government of Guangdong Province, and have been blamed for many illnesses.


For manufacturers dependent on rare earths, any moral or ethical implications of the crackdown on illegal mines may be too diffuse to identify. It is typically impossible to trace rare earths back to the mine where they were originally produced, industry executives say, because even legal mines frequently trade raw material with illegal ones, depending on whether the legitimate operators have met their production quotas.

The picture is further blurred by various middlemen who buy rare earth products from legal and illegal refineries alike and mix them before reselling.


China and Rare Earth Metals: the good, the bad and the not as ugly as it seems

Getting the facts straight never hurts, and every once in a while it really matters. The current brouhaha over China’s decision to cut its exports of rare earths falls in the latter category. So here is my best effort to get at the facts.


Several other countries, such as the United States, Australia, and Mongolia also possess rare earths. It will take time to gear up their largely dormant rare earth industries again, but it will happen. In the meantime, stockpiles and high prices will be in everyone’s future.

The other piece of good news—when Chinese companies have come calling to buy-up rare earth reserves abroad, others have generally been smart enough to say “no.” Just a bit over a year ago, Australia barred the China Non-ferrous Metal Mining group from taking a majority stake in rare-earth producer Lynas Corp.


There may well be more challenges to come. In China, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has proposed a five-year plan that includes a total ban on the export of five of the metals and a significant drop in the export of a number of others, such as neodymium.

Resource-scarce Japan, who might be thought of as the little piggy who built the brick house, is making deals for other sources of rare earths and trying to develop alternatives for them. It’s clear that a whole new generation of non-rare earth high-tech products will have to come on line; the United States and everyone else should follow Japan’s lead now.

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