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Development of Rare Earth Resources Cannot be at the Cost of the Environment-Interview with an official from MEP on Strengthening Ecological Conservation and Rehabilitation of Rare Earth Mines

MEP has printed out and distributed the Suggestions on Strengthen Ecological Conservation and Rehabilitation of Rare Earth Mines (Huanfa No. (2011) 48) in order to strengthen ecological conservation during the development of rare earth resources. A journalist of China Environment News recently interviewed relevant person in charge from MEP concerning relevant issue.
Journalist: What is the importance of rare earth resources and what is current situation of mining and processing rare earth resources in our country?
MEP official: Rare earth is called "industrial vitamin" and "treasury" of new materials. It not only plays increasingly important role in technical progress and development of traditional industries, but also is widely applied in high-technology industries such as information and biotechnology. China is the country with the richest rare earth resources in the world, 22 provinces (autonomous regions) found some rare earth mines, which are classified as north rare earth and south rare earth. The development of rare earth industry of our country is impressive. China has developed a relatively complete R&D system and industrial system that mines, processes and applies rare earth resources after about 50-year development since 1950s, it is dominant in global rare earth industry and plays a leading role.
Journalist: What kind of eco environment situation is facing in the development of rare earth resources in our country?
MEP official: Depending on exceptionally good conditions of rare earth resources advantages, China is No.1 in production, application and trade volume of rare earth resources. It is a real No.1 manufacturer of rare earth in the world. However, we have paid huge costs of resources, energy and environment. At present, the rare earth enterprises with waste of resources, outdated productivity and environmental protection still take a considerable proportion. The development of some new rare earth enterprises still at some extent is at the cost of high consumption of energy, resources and eco environment. Therefore, the environmental protection situation of rare earth industry of our country is not optimistic.
Journalist: What kind of environment problems exist during development of rare earth resources in our country?
MEP official: The development of rare earth resources mainly leads to environmental problems in the following two areas: 1) ecological damage; 2) environmental pollution.
Serious ecological damage of mining of rare earth resources:
Rare earth mines in particular those in southern part of China have serious ecological damages due to land and vegetation damage and water and soil erosion, during mining as very low grade of rare earth mines. There are too many small rare earth mines in southern part of China such as Jiangxi, Fujian and Guangdong. They are small in scale with simple and lagging behind mining technology. Some of them still employ the so called "hill resettlement" off-site pool leaching method. The recovery rate of rare earth is low with serious damage on eco environment. The mining of every 10 t of rare earth oxides will strip off land surface and generate 1000~1600 m3 tailings, damaging large amount of vegetation. The amount of tailings of a mine with annual capacity of 1000 t exceeds 200,000 ~ 300,000 t, which occupies about 20 mu (15 mu = 1 ha) land. In addition, mining without regulations and plans of individual mining sites continue to be existing after repeated banning by the government. These small mining enterprises usually mine the rich ore mines and abandoning the poor, leading to serious damage of hill soil and vegetation as well as water and soil erosion of large areas, covering downstream river bed and cropland and seriously pollute water sources in case of heavy rain. According to relevant report, the mining and mineral processing of rare earth mines in Jiangxi Province make about 15 million mu vegetation in Gannan area subject to destruction, 40 million m3 tailings have not been under proper treatment with serious water and soil erosion. Large volumes of water and soil erosion due to mining of rare earth raise the river bed of Ganjiang River and lead to the increase of sand and sediment movement to the Poyang Lake.
Rare earth mines in Sichuan have similar situation. The owners at county, township, village and individual levels in Mianning County of Liangshan Prefecture engage in mining business one after another, leading to many openings and cuts of mine sites. Baiyun Ebo Mine in Baotou is a rare earth mine associated with iron mineral resources, Baotou Iron & Steel Corporation separates as high as 400,000 ~ 500,000 t rare earth ores from iron ores each year. 300,000 ~400,000 t left raw materials are stockpiled each year like hills. In addition, some private mines develop mineral resources without any regulations and planning, this caused idling of large amount of rare earth resources in Baotou. Meanwhile, it causes serious destruction on local eco environment.
Environmental pollution caused by extraction and processing of rare earth resources cannot be ignored:
At present, most rare earth enterprises in our country are engaged in low-level extraction, processing and production of rare earth resources, leading to very serious environmental pollution.
Environmental pollution generated from mineral processing process mainly include hazardous waste water, residue and waste gas pollution during the production process, among them, water pollution is the most serious. At present, both ion-type rare earth mines and wet method separation employ ammonium bicarbonate precipitation technology, this will no doubt generate waste water containing ammonia nitrogen. Among them, the treatment of the waste water containing ammonium sulfate is the most difficult. There is no ideal technology up to now. Wet extraction method of rare earth generates large amount of waste water, which contains pollutants such as ammonia, nitrogen, SO4+,Cl- and radioactive substances that may go beyond standard by several times to several dozen times. The phenomena of discharge of large amount of  toxic and hazard gases from baking, smelting and electrolyzing systems that are not treated or treated but fail to meet emission standard is rather common. There are more than 100 rare earth smelting enterprises across the country, a considerable amount of them have weak awareness in environmental protection. In the early development stage, they have problems such as weak foundation, low-level technology, many left environmental problems in need of treatment, outdated production technology and equipment, no environmental treatment facilities with extensive operation mode. For example, some small and medium sized rare earth enterprises along the bank of the Yellow River do not have environmental protection facilities, or have simple environmental protection facilities that usually are not under operation. They discharge the "three kinds of wastes" at will. Some individual enterprises even discharge radioactive residues into local river, which seriously threatens water quality.
Journalist: What are the major measures for addressing current eco environment problems resulting from development of rare earth resources?
MEP official: First, we will accelerate the premium system for protection and restoration of eco environment subject to development of rare earth resources. We will integrate the mine-site rehabilitation cost into the total cost of development of rare earth resources. Based on the requirement of "Carrying out the premium system for eco environment protection and rehabilitation of mine sites, identify strict economic responsibility of enterprises for protection and rehabilitation of mine site eco environment" specified in Some Suggestions of the State Council on Promoting Sustained Healthy Development of Rare Earth Industry, we will accelerate the implementation of the premium system for protection and restoration of eco environment subject to development of rare earth resources. According to the program for protection and rehabilitation of eco environment of mine sites, we will comprehensively collect and raise the premium from rare earth mining enterprises based on the principle of the sum not less than the cost for protection and rehabilitation of mine site eco environment. To address environmental pollution and ecological damages left in the past, regional environmental protection problem as well as compensation for health damages resulting from development of rare earth resources, we should actively explore the eco-compensation mechanism for rare earth mines guided by the government and participated by enterprises and the public.
Second, we will identify strict responsibility of relevant enterprises and carry out ecological protection and restoration projects. According to the principle of "mining along with rehabilitation", the party with mining right should carry out ecological protection and rehabilitation projects based on the program for protection and rehabilitation of mine site eco environment. Relevant measures for radiation protection and prevention and control of radioactive pollution should be taken for rare earth mines with associated radioactive ores. Mining companies should finish ecological conservation and rehabilitation task before pit decommissioning and close of mines.
Third, we will make more efforts in publicity on environmental pollution and ecological damage caused by development of rare earth resources. Each province and autonomous region should greatly publicize the significance of ecological protection of rare earth mines. They should publicize the main eco environmental problems and cost of developing rare earth resources to raise the awareness of enterprises and the public in legal system and environmental protection. We will give full play to the guiding and supervision role of news media and raise the attention and understanding of the public and international communities to the development of rare earth resources in our country.
Fourth, we will strengthen technical reform, raise technology level, vigorously promote clean production and control environmental pollution and ecological damage at the sources. We will attach importance to the role of scientific progress in environmental protection work; research and develop new mining, mineral processing and smelting technologies with zero pollution; raise the process and equipment level; raise rare earth utilization rate and change current passive situation of end-of-pipe treatment, and seek both temporary and permanent solutions to environmental pollution. The mining technology will follow the path of high productivity, low cost and big & automatic equipment. Mineral processing technology will be more comprehensive, clean, energy saving with big equipment and highly efficient, toxic-free and degradable reagents. The smelting technology will follow the direction of large production scale, automatic production process and advanced production technology and equipment that saves energy, improves the environment and lowers the cost. The processing technology will follow the path of high-efficiency, low cost, low energy consumption, short flowchart, environment-friendly and saving materials. Products will apply more high technology and new materials. Mining operations will follow the path of scaled, professional and intellectual production.
Fifth, we will beef up environmental management of rare earth mines and supervision on law enforcement. We will correct any environmental infringement that damages eco environment of mine site during mining of rare earth resources. We will conduct regular check and supervision on ecological conservation and rehabilitation of rare earth mine sites, and understand ecological conservation and rehabilitation of rare earth mine sites in time. We will urge the party with mining right to fulfill his responsibility and obligations for protection of eco environment during the development of rare earth resources and strengthen prevention of any environmental risks. We will seriously organize special law enforcement industrial structure on environmental protection of rare earth mining activities, make more efforts in investigation, investigate and prosecute according to law any environmental infringements of the party with mining right during rare earth mining activities. If the circumstance is serious, it shall be handed over to judicial department to investigate the criminal responsibility according to law.

 

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