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Amid China Trade Tensions, Pentagon Eyes Toxic Rare Earths Development in US

Processing of rare earths has unleashed environmental catastrophe in China

A vast expanse of toxic waste fills the tailings dam on April 21, 2011, frequently whipped up by strong winds dumping mllions of tonnes of radioactive materials toward surounding villages where farmers blame the state-owned giant Baogang Group, China's largest producer of rare earths and a major iron ore miner and steel producer, for poisoning their fields and ruining their livelihoods near Baotou city in Inner Mongolia

A vast expanse of toxic waste fills the tailings dam on April 21, 2011, frequently whipped up by strong winds dumping mllions of tonnes of radioactive materials toward surounding villages where farmers blame the state-owned giant Baogang Group, China's largest producer of rare earths and a major iron ore miner and steel producer, for poisoning their fields and ruining their livelihoods near Baotou city in Inner Mongolia, northwest China. Farmers living near the tailings dam, a 10-square-kilometre expanse of toxic waste, say they have lost teeth and their hair has turned white while tests show the soil and water contain high levels of cancer-causing radioactive materials.  (Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

New reporting reveals that the Pentagon is eyeing the development of so-called "rare earths" in the U.S., a move that could make the country less reliant on industry-dominating China amid trade tensions between the two nations, and would bring steep environmental costs.

Reuters reported on the development last week, citing an Air Force-created document.

The Pentagon wants miners to describe plans to develop U.S. rare earths mines and processing facilities, and asked manufacturers to detail their needs for the minerals, according to the document, which is dated June 27.

Responses are required by July 31, a short time frame that underscores the Pentagon's urgency. The U.S. government's fiscal year ends in September.

"The overall goal is to secure and assure a viable, domestic supplier (of rare earths) for the long-term," the nine-page document says.

"The push," reported Reuters, "comes weeks after China threatened to curb exports to the United States of rare earths."

Rare earths—which are not actually rare—refer to a group of 17 elements including include yttrium, lanthanum, and cerium.  They are used in objects from military aircraft to smartphones.  

China, as Bloomberg noted, is the key player in the industry.

China accounted for 71 percent of the rare earths mined globally in 2018, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Australia and the U.S. were distant runners up, together producing less than a third of China's 120,000 metric tons. The U.S. relied on China for about four of every five tons of rare-earth imports between 2014 and 2017 and in 2018 purchased $160 million-worth, up 17 percent from a year earlier.

It's not just a matter of digging them up from the earth, however, as Australia's ABC reported:

they're found inside other, non-rare-earth deposits. The materials that are dug up need to be broken down in order to isolate the rare earths.

One way to do this, [Gavin Mudd, associate professor in chemical and environmental engineering at RMIT University,] said, is through "hundreds and hundreds" of leaching cycles, which involves acid being used to separate minerals contained in rocks or sediment — an incredibly hazardous task for humans.

One rare earths mining town in northern China, Baotou—home to a large acid-mining tailings dam—has been dubbed "the worst place on earth," due to its levels of toxicity.

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Laying out that environmental havoc, Matthew Currell, a lecturer in hydrogeology at RMIT University's School of Environmental Engineering, wrote previously at The Conversation:

Rare earth elements processing creates large quantities of acidic waste water, toxic gases, and radioactive tailings containing thorium, fluorine, and ammonia. These wastes are difficult to dispose of safely, and have caused major health and environmental problems in Baotou and other areas.[...]

All indications suggest a western country would not be willing to locate the facilities within its borders, and deal with the environmental impacts.

China, as ABC reported last month, "has been able to sell the commodities at much lower prices than other countries as a result of its less stringent environmental and health safety regulations, and lower labor costs."

Currently, reports Reuters, there's only one rare earth facility in use in the U.S., MP Materials, which "ships its ore to China for processing and has been subject to a 25 percent tariff since last month."

It's not clear that U.S. extraction and processing would fill the void. Wired reported last month, "The U.S. has a limited supply of rare earths, about 1 percent of the world's reserves, according to the Geologic Survey."

Still, Wired added,

President Donald Trump signed an executive order in 2017 instructing federal agencies to ensure the availability of critical minerals such as rare earth elements. This month's Commerce Department report suggested a few ways to do that, including recycling rare earths and other materials, developing alternatives, diversifying supply chains, and increasing mining on federal lands.

Members of Congress have pushed the development as well. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) this month, citing Chinese control of the market, unveiled legislation calling for creation of a "rare earth cooperative" exempt from antitrust laws to boost domestic refining of rare earth elements.

He wasn't alone.  Per CNBC:

In April, U.S. Senators Joe Manchin, Shelley Moore Capito, and Lisa Murkowski introduced the Rare Earth Element Advanced Coal Technologies Act, which would allocate $23 million a year to the Department of Energy and its National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) through 2027 to help develop technologies that could extract rare earth elements from coal and coal by-products in U.S. mines.

There's a fundamental question, though, that Western consumers must ask, wrote Currell—"are we willing to pay substantially more to buy a smart phone so that all steps of the production process are carried out in a safe and environmentally responsible manner?"

"Or," he continued, "are we comfortable paying the current price, knowing that it contributes to cancer and environmental degradation somewhere else in the world?"

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