Boom in Mining Rare Earths Poses Mounting Toxic Risks

Yale Environment 360

January 28, 2013

In November, the first shipment of raw “rare earth” minerals arrived at an $800 million processing plant on Malaysia’s east coast near the home of Tan Bun Teet. The plant, run by Australia’s Lynas Corporation, has since begun refining the rare earth metals, essential components in wind turbines, hybrid cars, smart phones, cruise missiles, and other high-tech products. Once fully operational, the plant would become the world’s largest processing facility of rare earths, breaking China’s near-monopoly on producing the prized elements.

But Tan and others in the region are concerned that the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant, known as LAMP, will be plagued by the severe environmental problems that have been the hallmark of rare earths processing plants in China and, more than two decades ago, in Malaysia itself. The plant lies in an industrial zone atop reclaimed swampland, just 12 miles from Kuantan, a city of 600,000. The chief worry is that the rare earth elements are bound up in mineral deposits with the low-level radioactive element thorium, exposure to which has been linked to an increased risk of developing lung, pancreatic, and other cancers.

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