In China, the True Cost of Britain's Clean, Green Wind Power Experiment:
Pollution on a Disastrous Scale
Simon Parry and Ed Douglas
On the outskirts
of one of Chinas most polluted cities, an old farmer stares
despairingly out across an immense lake of bubbling toxic waste
covered in black dust. He remembers it as fields of wheat and corn.
Yan Man Jia
Hong is a dedicated Communist. At 74, he still believes in his revolutionary
heroes, but he despises the young local officials and entrepreneurs
who have let this happen.
Mao was a hero and saved us, he says. But these people
only care about money. They have destroyed our lives.
are being amassed here in Inner Mongolia; the region has more than
90 per cent of the worlds legal reserves of rare earth metals,
and specifically neodymium, the element needed to make the magnets
in the most striking of green energy producers, wind turbines.
Live has uncovered
the distinctly dirty truth about the process used to extract neodymium:
it has an appalling environmental impact that raises serious questions
over the credibility of so-called green technology.
is that, as Britain flaunts its environmental credentials by speckling
its coastlines and unspoiled moors and mountains with thousands
of wind turbines, it is contributing to a vast man-made lake of
poison in northern China. This is the deadly and sinister side of
the massively profitable rare-earths industry that the green
companies profiting from the demand for wind turbines would prefer
you knew nothing about.
of sight behind smoke-shrouded factory complexes in the city of
Baotou, and patrolled by platoons of security guards, lies a five-mile
wide tailing lake. It has killed farmland for miles
around, made thousands of people ill and put one of Chinas
key waterways in jeopardy.
hissing cauldron of chemicals is the dumping ground for seven million
tons a year of mined rare earth after it has been doused in acid
and chemicals and processed through red-hot furnaces to extract
meander for miles from factories processing rare earths in Baotou
out to the man-made lake where, mixed with water, the foul-smelling
radioactive waste from this industrial process is pumped day after
day. No signposts and no paved roads lead here, and as we approach
security guards shoo us away and tail us. When we finally break
through the cordon and climb sand dunes to reach its brim, an apocalyptic
sight greets us: a giant, secret toxic dump, made bigger by every
wind turbine we build.
The lake instantly
assaults your senses. Stand on the black crust for just seconds
and your eyes water and a powerful, acrid stench fills your lungs.
For hours after
our visit, my stomach lurched and my head throbbed. We were there
for only one hour, but those who live in Mr Yans village of
Dalahai, and other villages around, breathe in the same poison every
Su Bairen, 69, who led us to the lake, says it was initially a novelty
a multi-coloured pond set in farmland as early rare earth
factories run by the state-owned Baogang group of companies began
work in the Sixties.
it was just a hole in the ground, he says. When it dried
in the winter and summer, it turned into a black crust and children
would play on it. Then one or two of them fell through and drowned
in the sludge below. Since then, children have stayed away.
As more factories
sprang up, the banks grew higher, the lake grew larger and the stench
and fumes grew more overwhelming.
into a mountain that towered over us, says Mr Su. Anything
we planted just withered, then our animals started to sicken and
began to suffer. Dalahai villagers say their teeth began to fall
out, their hair turned white at unusually young ages, and they suffered
from severe skin and respiratory diseases. Children were born with
soft bones and cancer rates rocketed.
carried out five years ago in Dalahai village confirmed there were
unusually high rates of cancer along with high rates of osteoporosis
and skin and respiratory diseases. The lakes radiation levels
are ten times higher than in the surrounding countryside, the studies
maybe because of pressure from the companies operating around the
lake, which pump out waste 24 hours a day, the results of ongoing
radiation and toxicity tests carried out on the lake have been kept
secret and officials have refused to publicly acknowledge health
risks to nearby villages.
There are 17
rare earth metals the name doesnt mean
they are necessarily in short supply; it refers to the fact that
the metals occur in scattered deposits of minerals, rather than
concentrated ores. Rare earth metals usually occur together, and,
once mined, have to be separated.
commonly used as part of a Neodymium-Iron-Boron alloy (Nd2Fe14B)
which, thanks to its tetragonal crystal structure, is used to make
the most powerful magnets in the world. Electric motors and generators
rely on the basic principles of electromagnetism, and the stronger
the magnets they use, the more efficient they can be. Its
been used in small quantities in common technologies for quite a
long time hi-fi speakers, hard drives and lasers, for example.
But only with the rise of alternative energy solutions has neodymium
really come to prominence, for use in hybrid cars and wind turbines.
A direct-drive permanent-magnet generator for a top capacity wind
turbine would use 4,400lb of neodymium-based permanent magnet material.
In the pollution-blighted
city of Baotou, most people wear face masks everywhere they go.
to wear one otherwise the dust gets into your lungs and poisons
you, our taxi driver tells us, pulling over so we can buy
white cloth masks from a roadside hawker.
Posing as buyers,
we visit Baotou Xijun Rare Earth Co Ltd. A large billboard in front
of the factory shows an idyllic image of fields of sheep grazing
in green fields with wind turbines in the background.
In a smartly
appointed boardroom, Vice General Manager Cheng Qing tells us proudly
that his company is the fourth biggest producer of rare earth metals
in China, processing 30,000 tons a year. He leads us down to a complex
of primitive workshops where workers with no protective clothing
except for cotton gloves and face masks ladle molten rare earth
from furnaces with temperatures of 1,000°C.
is 1.5kg bricks of neodymium, packed into blue barrels weighing
250kg each. Its price has more than doubled in the past year
it now costs around £80 per kilogram. So a 1.5kg block would
be worth £120 or more than a fortnights wages
for the workers handling them. The waste from this highly toxic
process ends up being pumped into the lake looming over Dalahai.
Baogang Group, which operates most of the factories in Baotou, claims
it invests tens of millions of pounds a year in environmental protection
and processes the waste before it is discharged.
Du Youlu of Baogangs safety and environmental protection department,
seven million tons of waste a year was discharged into the lake,
which is already 100ft high and growing by three feet each year.
In what appeared
an attempt to shift responsibility onto Chinas national leaders
and their close control of the rare earths industry, he added: The
tailing is a national resource and China will ultimately decide
what will be done with the lake.
an expert on toxics for Greenpeace China, says villagers living
near the lake face horrendous health risks from the carcinogenic
and radioactive waste.
not one step of the rare earth mining process that is not disastrous
for the environment. Ores are being extracted by pumping acid into
the ground, and then they are processed using more acid and chemicals.
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