The Greening of The West Leaves Other Countries a Devastated, Toxic Mess

8 07 2019

While the West receives shiny new products with the promise of saving the planet, places like Mongolia and Chile are suffering greatly. From ACH News.

I was driving yesterday and found myself amazed at how many hybrid cars there are now, remembering the “wait list” when the Prius first came out. It’s a booming business just getting started. Solar technology is everywhere. There are “solar farms” to enable entire cities to run off of solar panels. Wind turbines dot landscapes across the country. As climate change is a hot topic now (no pun intended), the West is doing its part by “greening” its energy usage and converting to alternative energy sources, like solar or wind power. Cars are traded in for the newest hybrid. It’s all being done because it’s “renewable” and “carbon neutral”.

As a culture, we are myopic. We only see what we want to see. We only see what the culture wants us to see and in this case, the culture wants us to see how amazing it is to buy a solar panel/hybrid car/wind turbine and do our part to curb global warming. We do it and feel great giving the culture our money, knowing, when we go to bed, we did this incredible, Earth-saving venture.

But what if we were really informed? What if we were given all the information on the creation of this “green” product? What if our “greening” was really, at the core, just more destruction?

Let’s visit a couple of places where minerals are mined for the production of our “alternative, save-the-Earth, green technology”.

Baotou, China, Inner Mongolia
Baotou, China: A toxic lake of mine and refinery tailings stretches for over 3.5 miles from Baogang Iron and Steel Corporation. One ton of rare earth produces 75 ton of acidic waste water, a cocktail of acids, heavy metals, carcinogens and radioactive material at three times background radiation. Photo: Toby Smith/Unknown Fields

Most people have never heard of Baotou, China. The same people probably could not (or would not) want to imagine life without it.

Baotou is one of the world’s largest suppliers of “rare earth” minerals. These are elements that are used in the manufacturing of tech gadgets (smart phones) and also our “green alternative energy”: magnets for wind turbines and parts for electric car motors. China produced 95% of the entire world’s supply of rare earth elements. Minerals are mined at the Bayan Obo Mine, just north of Baotou and processed at Baogang Steel and Rare Earth Complex. The rare earth minerals which come from this plant, primarily neodymium and cerium, are actually not so rare and can be found dispersed all over the planet. The problem lies in the extraction. In an article from BBC Future reporter, Tim Maughan (led by the group, Unknown Fields) says so eloquently,

Rare earth discharge, Baotou, China

The intriguing thing about both neodymium and cerium is that while they’re called rare earth minerals, they’re actually fairly common. Neodymium is no rarer than copper or nickel and quite evenly distributed throughout the world’s crust. While China produces 90% of the global market’s neodymium, only 30% of the world’s deposits are located there. Arguably, what makes it, and cerium, scarce enough to be profitable are the hugely hazardous and toxic process needed to extract them from ore and to refine them into usable products. For example, cerium is extracted by crushing mineral mixtures and dissolving them in sulphuric and nitric acid, and this has to be done on a huge industrial scale, resulting in a vast amount of poisonous waste as a byproduct. It could be argued that China’s dominance of the rare earth market is less about geology and far more about the country’s willingness to take an environmental hit that other nations shy away from.

Google Earth shows us the size of this lake that supports no life.

In a place that was once filled with farms as far as the eye could see, now lies a lake (which are called “tailing ponds), visible from Google Earth, filled with radioactive toxic sludge. The water is so contaminated that not even algae will grow. Maughan describes the chill he felt when he saw the lake: “It’s a truly alien environment, dystopian and horrifying”. Because the reservoir was not properly lined when it was built, waste leaked into the groundwater, killing off livestock, making residents sick and destroyed any chance of farming. In reality, though, farmers have long been displaced by factories. The people that remain are experiencing diabetes, osteoporosis and chest problems. Residents of what is now known as the “rare-earth capital of the world” are inhaling solvent vapors, particularly sulphuric acid (used for extraction), as well as coal dust. But hey, we need wind turbines to save the planet. And the electric car is definitely going to reduce carbon emissions.

I’m sorry to say that there is no amount of “greening” that going to remove this toxic sludge from the lives of those who live in Baotou. We are stealing the Earth from others. Our logic that solar/wind/the electric car is going to save the planet, instead of the most logical action of using far less, is destroying faraway lands and lives. It’s easy for us to sweep it all under the rug since we are not the ones directly affected by this lust for more energy consumption. We are simply sold on the latest and greatest technology that will save the planet and make our insatiable energy consumption a little bit easier to digest.

The public must be made aware of this catastrophe.

We must be willing to change or face the fact that people and earth and animals are dying for our inability to change.

Salar de Atacama, Atacama Desert, Chile

The International Energy Agency forecasts that the number of electric vehicles on the road around the world will hit 125 million by 2030. Right now, the number sits around 3.1 million. In order to support this growth, a lot of lithium is needed for the batteries to run this fleet. It is this lithium extraction that is destroying northern Chile’s Atacama Desert.

Lithium separation ponds, Atacama, Chile

Lithium is found in the brine of the salt flats, located in Chile. To extract the lithium from Salar de Atacama, holes are drilled into the flats to pump the brine to the surface. This allows lithium carbonate to be extracted through a chemical process. The whole process requires a lot of water. So much water in fact that the once life-supporting oasis is now a barren wasteland.

In an interview with Bloomberg, Sara Plaza tells the story heard time and time again: “No one comes here anymore, because there’s not enough grass for the animals,” Plaza says. “But when I was a kid, there was so much water you could mistake this whole area for the sea.” She recalls walking with her family’s sheep along an ancient Inca trail that flowed between wells and pastures. Now, an engine pumps fresh water from beneath the mostly dry Tilopozo meadow. “Now mining companies are taking the water,” she says.

The race for lithium extraction is viewed as a noble one. Electric cars are sold as a ticket to salvation from Climate Change. Electric auto makers want to make it easier and cheaper for drivers to convert to “clean”, battery-powered replacements for “dirty” combustion engines. Rather, they want more money and will sell us the “green” theory.

Extracting Atacama’s lithium means pumping large amounts of water and churning up salty mud known as brine. In Salar de Atacama, the heroic mission of saving the planet through electric cars is leaving another Indigenous community devastated.

If this was really about saving the planet, there would be regulations on single drivers in cars. Public transportation would be at the forefront, not affordable priced electric cars that EVERYBODY can own. Let’s be real here. The people that are poised to benefit the most from “green” energy are companies such as  Albemarle Corp. and Soc. Quimica & Minera de Chile SA, who are responsible for mining most of Chile’s lithium.

Sergio Cubillos, president of Atacama People’s Council, stands on an empty water tank at the village of Peine. Photo: Cristobal Olivares/Bloomberg

The locals, whose families have lived here for thousands of years, are not benefiting.

From Bloomberg: “The falling water levels are felt by local people. Peine, the village closest to the mining, has a license to pump 1.5 liters of water per second to supply 400 residents and a transient population of mine workers that can rise as high as 600. BHP’s Escondida copper mine has a license to pump 1,400 liters per second. Albemarle and SQM, the big lithium miners, have licenses to pump around 2,000 liters per second of brine.”

“We’re fooling ourselves if we call this sustainable and green mining,” says Cristina Dorador, a Chilean biologist who studies microbial life in the Atacama desert. 

Which begs the question: What is “green technology“?

The Earth is green technology. The blade of grass that grows towards the light is green technology. The breath of fresh air that is given to us by the plants on land and the plants in the ocean is green technology. The spring water that rises from the depths, mysteriously and miraculously, is green technology. This fragile environment that surrounds us, the unexplainable, intricately woven web of life that holds us, the environment that is degrading rapidly from our greedy lust for more and more, that is green technology. What we are being sold today from companies who are leading the rat-race of civilization is not green. This green technology that they speak of is actually dark red, almost black, stained with the radioactive, desecrated blood of people and earth.

In closing, from Derrick Jensen:

“There is no free lunch. Actions have consequences, and when you steal from others, the others no longer have what you stole from them. This is as true when this theft is from nonhumans as it is when it’s from humans.

But, as Upton Sinclair said, “It’s hard to make a man understand something when his job depends on him not understanding it.” It’s even harder to make people understand something when their whole way of life depends on them not understanding it.”