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Bayan Obo world biggest rare earths mine, Baotou, Inner Mongolia, China


Description:

Bayan Obo is an industrial mining town based on rare earth production (as well as iron and niobium), metallurgy and machinery manufacturing in Inner Mongolia, China. Self-proclaimed “Hometown of Rare Earths” [1], it is the largest rare earth element (REE) mineral deposit in the world, accounting for 45% of worldwide REE production in 2019 [2].  These 17 REEs are essential to advanced modern technologies, from smartphones to GPS receivers, but also to “clean technologies” such as wind farms, photovoltaic panels, and electric cars, as well as cancer treatments and sophisticated weapons [3]. Their unique physicochemical properties make them indispensable to both modern daily life and warfare and without them, a computer would be approximately as big as a room [4].

Observations made by the local inhabitants about the massive pollution of regional soils and water as well as the intoxication of animals and human-beings [4] are corroborated by extensive research literature exposing the consequences of heavy metals, fluorine and arsenic resulting from the decades of mining that have been seriously poisoning local inhabitants and ecosystems [2] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9]. The geographer and REE specialist J.M. Klinger has done on-field research work to investigate the issue [1][4].

Long-term industrial mining activities have produced huge amounts of tailings. Iron and REE ore are currently mined at a rate of 15,000 tons per day, resulting in a tailing area covering 11.5 km2 containing 150 million tonnes of tailings, including mainly rare earth elements as well as toxic chemical elements, heavy metals and radioactive material (thorium) [9][2]. This tailing dam (which was called by local people “Rare Earth Lake”, “xituhu” in mandarin) was built in 1966, at the same time as the processing plants which use several acid baths to extract REE from the tailings of the mined ore. The acid method is the most polluting one but also the cheapest, compared to the other available alkaline methods (low pollution but high cost) [c1][c2].

Xinguangsancun Village (新光三村) is located only 5 km East from the tailing dam, and Baotou residential areas are 12 km from it. Local inhabitants interviewed by the investigative journalist C. Bontron explained that at the end of the 1980s “Plants grew badly. They would flower all right, but sometimes there was no fruit or they were small or smelt awful”. 10 years later as vegetables simply wouldn’t grow any longer, farmers were forced to leave their fields, or to grow contaminated wheat and corn [3]. One of the farmers explained that he found the last of his pigs dead in 2007. It was the last of his farm animals to die, following the goats, chicken, cows and horses which had been deadly poisoned. According to a document from the Committee of Dalahai Up Village (located 1.5 km West from the dam) (打拉亥村) in 2000 “horses [had] long teeth; donkeys rotten teeth; mule mouth pain; cow stomach pain, rotten bones, and severe hair loss after drinking water, leading to death [by starvation]” [c2]. This “Long Teeth Disease”, known as fluorosis, also affected human-beings [1]. A local villager, Hao Bingwen, said that at that time, the children's teeth were uneven, and some had double-layered teeth. Adults lose their teeth in their 30s, and they would fall off with a simple pull [c2]. In Xinguangsancun Village “There’s a lot of diabetes, osteoporosis [hemiplegia, cancer] and chest problems. All the families are affected by illness” says He Guixiang, a 60-year-old farmer [3]. From 1993 to the end of 2005, 66 people died of cancer; and since 2006, there has been 14 deaths in the village, of which 11 were caused by cancer [c1]. Research studies also showed that the people living and working in the Mining Area were found with a higher concentration of 22 chemical elements potentially harmful to health in their hair, which was used as a biomarker of exposure to chemical elements [8].

Small-scale mining activities had been conducted in Bayan Obo for 80 years, before the discovery of iron minerals in 1927 and REE in 1936 [2]. But industrial-scale mining overwhelmingly changed the extent of the environmental and health impacts. Bayan Obo received massive soviet investment, planning and expertise during the 1950s, laying the groundwork for the place to become the REE capital of the world [4]. In the 1980s, globalization further accelerated the mining activities as companies and governments from the global North chose to subcontract steps of REE mining to China to save money, avoid environmental regulations [4], thereby importing essential resources while exporting the massive pollution and its dreadful consequences. In 2000, when the main U.S. mining site shut down in Mountain Pass due to environmental violations, China was mining more than 95 % of the REE used worldwide (63% in 2019 [10]). 80% of the light REE resources in China are distributed in the Bayan Obo region [11].

The operating company is the Baogang Group (Baotou Iron and Steel Group), a major iron and steel state-owned enterprise founded in 1954 in Baotou. It is the largest REE industrial research and production base in the world [12]. Despite the strategies from the Chinese government to conceal the consequences of the Bayan Obo opencast mining activities, an increasing number of research papers about it are becoming available. This might be only the tip of the iceberg, knowing that most of government-funded research is kept secret – considered too sensitive for public disclosure –, often censored to minimize the problems caused by mining, or simply not translated in English to prevent “criticism of China”, according to Klinger [1].

The official story in public government reports is that there have been no farmers or herders in Bayan Obo for decades, that they all have been resettled or found other employment opportunities elsewhere [1]. In fact, according to an elder herder, Bayan Obo used to belong to Mongolian nomads and the site of the actual mine was once a sacred mountain for them. Nobody wanted to leave but “first the animals got sick, then the infants, and then everybody else” [1]. One of the first farmers to go, Lu Yongqing, explains that “I couldn’t feed my family any longer” [3]. In Xinguangsancun, the population dropped from 2,000 to 300 people in 10 years. “The refugees from Xinguangsancun are treated as second-class citizens and mercilessly exploited” as reported by C. Bontron [3].

The villagers who stayed, organized gatherings to talk about their health problems and define resistance strategies. “I’ve been knocking on government doors for nearly 20 years” says He Guixing. “To begin with, I’d go every day, except Sundays” [3]. For many years, the five villages around the tailing dam have been fighting against the Baogang Group. They finally obtained a promise of financial compensation, which had only been partly fulfilled in 2012 [3]. The company invested 300 million yuan (US$43 million) and the municipal government 200 million yuan to relocate the five villages around the tailing dam. New housing was effectively built a few kilometers away. However, due to various reasons such as the distance of the relocation site, disagreements on relocation costs and compensation, and the fact that the government demands the villagers to buy the right to occupy their flat, no one among the villagers is willing to relocate, and the completed residential resettlement buildings were still vacant by 2012 [art3][3]. Some of the villagers organized to make some money by selling tailings – still containing some REE – from the tailings dam to reprocessing plants. But this practice was made illegal and criminalized by the central government, depriving them of even that resource. In 2012 one of them was on trial, risking a 10-year prison sentence [3]. The villagers were clearly denied their human right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of themselves and their family, as well as their right to security and freedom of expression with the efforts of the local and central governments to maintain secrecy around the issues and to minimise it when they started to spread [1] [13].

The dangers of this “misplaced nationalist pride”, according to Klinger, are serious and the consequences unfortunate [1]. A research paper exposes the “considerable mixed heavy metal pollution” in several hot-spots of the mining area and mine tailing area. It also warns that at least two heavily polluted brownfield sites which have been redeveloped into a park and a large commercial centre because “It is claimed that the site was cleaned up” based on a general investigation of soil pollution launched by the Baotou municipal government. But “the results of these approaches remain unknown […] not public”. “However, the results of this research indicated that this site remained heavily polluted by heavy metals with high potential ecological risk” [5]. Other available research studies warn against the large-scale health threat caused by the wastewater irrigation system in Baotou region which carries toxic trace metals from the mining activities to the Yellow River (YR) [6]. According to a senior engineer in the Baotou Radiation and Environmental Management Office, in 2004 11 REE companies directly discharged sewage into the YR without any treatment [c2]. This river provides drinking water for 155 million people and irrigates 40% of the total wheat production in China. It is reported that “long-term irrigation with polluted YR water led to metal accumulation in local farmland soil and spring wheat. The consumption of YR water and spring wheat in Baotou region can cause adverse health effects to local people [6]. There is therefore a large-scale disturbance of the hydro system in the region, as well as important long-term geological impacts due to the extensive mining activities and infiltrations from the tailing areas.

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Bayan Obo world biggest rare earths mine, Baotou, Inner Mongolia, China
Country:China
State or province:Inner Mongolia
Location of conflict:Bayan Obo and Baotou, 白云鄂博矿区
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Mineral Ores and Building Materials Extraction
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Mineral processing
Mineral ore exploration
Tailings from mines
Landfills, toxic waste treatment, uncontrolled dump sites
Metal refineries
Specific commodities:Steel
Rare metals
Water
Iron ore
Niobium

Project Details and Actors

Project details

China now hosts 36% of the world’s total REE reserve base, and the Chinese REE production accounted for 63% of the total world production in 2019 [10]. 80% of the REE reserves in China are distributed in the Bayan Obo region, Inner Mongolia, Northern China [11]. The Bayan Obo open-pit mine contained approximately 1.4 billion tons of iron, 1 million tons of Nb2O5, and more than 40 million tons of REE minerals. Its production alone accounted for 45% of the total world REE production in 2015 [2].

Bayan Obo mining area is divided upon three main ore zones: the Main Orebody, the East Orebody, and the West Orebody (18km east-west, 48 km2). The Main and the East Orebody include iron and REE resources with more than 1000 m of strike length and in average 5.3 % rare earth oxides. Long-term mining activities in the area have produced a large amount of tailing. The tailing area covers 11.5 km2, with 150 million tonnes of tailings, of which approximately 9.3 million tonnes are REE tailings. [5] About 90% of the mined deposit was stored in the Weikuang tailing dam owned by the Baotou Iron and Steel Group (Baogang Group), 12 km away from Baotou city where about 2.65 million people live and 5km from Xinguang Sancun [5].

Iron and REE minerals are currently extracted at a rate of 15,000 tons per day from the Main and East Orebodies. The raw minerals are transported 120km North through railways, to Baotou city for reprocessing (see map), while the 8 tons of tailing products produced each year are disposed of freely in open pits near the Bayan Obo Mining Area [2].

Project area:4,800 ha in Bayan Obo Mining Area and 1,150 ha in Baotou Tailing Area
Level of Investment:Unknown but massive
Type of populationSemi-urban
Affected Population:2,650,000 in Baotou; 22,000 employees and their families near Bayan Obo; 2,000 in Xinguang Sancun
Start of the conflict:01/01/1980
Company names or state enterprises:Inner Mongolia Baotou Steel Union Co., Ltd from China - Ferrous metal extraction, processing and manufacturing, massive pollution in the Bayan Obo mining district
Inner Mongolia Baotou Steel Rare-Earth Hi-Tech Co., Ltd from China - REE extraction, reprocessing and manufacturing, massive pollution in the Bayan Obo mining district
Baogang Group, Baotou Iron and Steel Group from China - Mining company in Bayan Obo, massively polluting Bayan Obo Mining District, Baotou City and the Yellow River
Relevant government actors:- Baotou municipal government (supporting the Baogang Group mining activities, collecting financial compensation for local inhabitants, research and investigation about soil and ecosystems' pollutions, defining government reports public (in)accessibility )
- Central government (defining national environmental/health quality standards, criminalizing REE waste picking)
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:- Local villagers from Xinguang Sancun (gatherings, pressure to the local government)

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityLOW (some local organising)
Reaction stageUnknown
Groups mobilizing:Artisanal miners
Farmers
Industrial workers
Informal workers
Local ejos
Landless peasants
Neighbours/citizens/communities
Pastoralists
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Local scientists/professionals
Journalists
Forms of mobilization:Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Referendum other local consultations

Impacts

Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Desertification/Drought, Food insecurity (crop damage), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination, Soil erosion, Waste overflow, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Mine tailing spills, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Other environmental related diseases, Other Health impacts, Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Occupational disease and accidents
Potential: Accidents
Other Health impactsContinuous exposure to trace metal, radioactive waste and coal burning residues (ingestion, inhalation, dermal contact)
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Violations of human rights, Displacement, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Potential: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors

Outcome

Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Criminalization of activists
Migration/displacement
Repression
Application of existing regulations
New Environmental Impact Assessment/Study
Numerous scientific environmental assessments and brownfield redevelopment, false government claims and secrecy
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:It is one of the most heavily polluted areas in the world from industrial mining, processing, and manufacturing. Ecosystems, farm animals, vegetables, and humans have been exposed to continuous pollution, contracted several serious illnesses, and died from it in a lot of cases.
Only financial compensation has been promised to the local farmers, which they didn't fully receive by 2012.

Sources & Materials

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[2] Li K., Liang T., Wang L., Yang Z. (2015) Contamination and health risk assessment of heavy metals in road dust in Bayan Obo Mining Region in Inner Mongolia, North China. Journal of Geographical Sciences.
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11442-015-1244-1

[11] Fan H.R., Yang K.F., Hu F.F., Liu S., Wang K.Y. (2015) The giant Bayan Obo REE-Nb-Fe deposit, China: Controversy and ore genesis. Geoscience Frontiers, volume 7, issue 3, p.335-344
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1674987115001310

[5] Pan Y., Li H. (01/2016) Investigating Heavy Metal Pollution in Mining Brownfield and Its Policy Implications: A Case Study of the Bayan Obo Rare Earth Mine, Inner Mongolia, China. Environmental Management.
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26787014/

[8] Pan Y., Li H. (2015) Trace elements in scalp hair from potentially exposed individuals in the vicinity of the Bayan Obo mine in Baotou, China. Environmental Toxicology and Pharmacology, volume 40, issue 3, p.678-685.
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1382668915300715

[6] Si W. et al. (2014) Health Risks of Metals in Contaminated Farmland Soils and Spring Wheat Irrigated with Yellow River Water in Baotou, China. Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, 94, p. 214-219.
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25476736/

[7] Liu L. et al. (2019) Trace Elements in the Feathers of Waterfowl from Nanhaizi Wetland, Baotou, China. Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, 102, p. 778-783.
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00128-019-02596-z

[9] Li J, Hong M, Yin X, Liu J (2010) Effects of the accumulation of the rare earth elements on soil macrofauna community. Journal of Rare Earths, Vol.28, No.6, p.957.
https://www-sciencedirect-com.ezproxy.universite-paris-saclay.fr/science/article/pii/S1002072109602337

[3] Bontron C. (2012) Rare-earth mining in China comes at a heavy cost for local villages. The Guardian.
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/aug/07/china-rare-earth-village-pollution

[1] Klinger J. (2013) Berkeley Review of Latin American Studies, Fall 2013. Center for Latin American Studies.
https://clas.berkeley.edu/research/environment-rare-earths-lessons-latin-america

[4] Butters J. (2016) Elements of conflict - The scramble to control the rare elements powering the modern world. Arts and Sciences.
https://www.bu.edu/cas/magazine/spring16/elements-of-conflict/

[12] Wikipedia (2020) Baotou Steel.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baotou_Steel

[c1] 翟冠朝 (2009) 世界狂挖中国稀土 矿区附近村庄癌症患者激增. 每日经济新闻. (accessed on 2020-07-19)
https://finance.huanqiu.com/article/9CaKrnJlODm

[13] You T. (05/2019) Inside China's 'capital of rare earths': Beijing flaunts its sprawling mining city which has '100 million tonnes' of the minerals as it warns to ban exports if US refuses to back down in the trade war. Mailonline.
https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7082897/Inside-Chinas-capital-rare-earths.html

[c2] 黎光寿 (2010) 暗藏生态炸弹 包头“稀土湖”调查. 每日经济新闻. (accessed on 2020-07-19)
https://finance.qq.com/a/20101202/001846.htm

[c3] 记者 王亚光 张云龙 朱晓光 (2011) 包头稀土尾矿库之危:村民常年受环境污染困扰. 新华网. (accessed on 2020-07-19)
http://finance.sina.com.cn/chanjing/sdbd/20110113/14479248814.shtml

Other comments:[10] Ober J. (2020) U.S. Mineral Commodity Summaries 2020. USGS, p. 132-133. https://pubs.usgs.gov/periodicals/mcs2020/mcs2020.pdf

Meta information

Contributor:Noam Marseille, [email protected]
Last update04/08/2020

Images

 

Bayan Obo Mining Area, satellite view

48 km2 mining area, 3 Orebodies, numerous tailing areas and mining brownfields. Own elaboration from Google Maps Satellite view.

Baotou city and Weikuang tailing dam satellite map

11.5 km2 of tailings containing trace metals and radioactive wastes in the vicinity of Baotou city (12 km West) and Xinguang Sancun (5 km West)

Flagship manufacturer in Baotou

It is responsible for more than half of the mining and production output of rare earth metals in China – copyrights AFP Getty Images (https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7082897/Inside-Chinas-capital-rare-earths.html )

View from the Weikuang tailing dam to the industrial facilities of Baotou

View from the slag lake to the industrial facilities of Baotou l - Copyright Toby Smith / Unknown Fieds ( https://mothersdirt.wordpress.com/tag/bayan-obo/ )

Bayan Obo open-pit mine

View of one of the 3 Orebodies. Ren Junchuan/Xinhua Press/Corbis (https://www.bu.edu/cas/magazine/spring16/elements-of-conflict/ )