The artificial lake in Baotou in Inner Mongolia - the dumping ground for radioactive, toxic waste from the city’s rare earth mineral refineries. The byproduct of creating materials used to do everything from make magnets for wind turbines to polishing iPhones to make them nice and shiny.
This toxic lake poisons Chinese farmers, their children and their land. It is what's left behind after making the magnets for Britain's latest wind turbines... and, is merely one of a multitude of environmental sins committed in the name of our new green Jerusalem.
On the outskirts of one of China’s 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.
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.
The reality 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.
Hidden out 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 China’s key waterways in jeopardy.
This vast, 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 its components.
People too 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.
Official studies 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 lake’s radiation levels are ten times higher than in the surrounding countryside, the studies found.
According to Du Youlu of Baogang’s 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.
Finally they are dumped into tailing lakes that are often very poorly constructed and maintained. And throughout this process, large amounts of highly toxic acids, heavy metals and other chemicals are emitted into the air that people breathe, and leak into surface and ground water. Villagers rely on this for irrigation of their crops and for drinking water. Whenever we purchase products that contain rare earth metals, we are unknowingly taking part in massive environmental degradation and the destruction of communities.’
The fact that the wind-turbine industry relies on neodymium, which even in legal factories has a catastrophic environmental impact, is an irony Ms Choi acknowledges.
‘It is a real dilemma for environmentalists who want to see the growth of the industry,’ she says. ‘But we have the responsibility to recognise the environmental destruction that is being caused while making these wind turbines.’
Study a graph of electricity consumption and it appears amazingly predictable, even down to reduced demand on public holidays. The graph for wind energy output, however, is far less predictable.
Take the figures for December, when we all shivered through sub-zero temperatures and wholesale electricity prices surged. Peak demand for the UK on 20 December was just over 60,000 megawatts. Maximum capacity for wind turbines throughout the UK is 5,891 megawatts, almost ten per cent of that peak demand figure.
Yet on December 20, because winds were light or non-existent, wind energy contributed a paltry 140 megawatts. Despite billions of pounds in investment and subsidies, Britain’s wind-turbine fleet was producing a feeble 2.43 per cent of its own capacity – and little more than 0.2 per cent of the nation’s electricity in the coldest month since records began.
Read full story: Mail Online - China, the true cost of clean, green wind power experiment: Pollution on a disastrous scale.
Related story: BBC - Hidden in an unknown corner of Inner Mongolia is a toxic, nightmarish lake created by our thirst for smartphones, consumer gadgets and green tech.
The thought that it is man-made depressed and terrified me, as did the realization that this was the byproduct not just of the consumer electronics in my pocket, but also green technologies like wind turbines and electric cars that we get so smugly excited about in the West.
Even before getting to the toxic lake, the environmental impact the rare earth industry has had on the city is painfully clear. At times it’s impossible to tell where the vast structure of the Baogang refineries complex ends and the city begins. Massive pipes erupt from the ground and run along roadways and sidewalks, arching into the air to cross roads like bridges. The streets here are wide, built to accommodate the constant stream of huge diesel-belching coal trucks that dwarf all other traffic.
One of Baotou’s other main exports is neodymium, another rare earth with a variety of applications. Neodymium magnets are a vital component in large equipment that requires powerful magnetic fields, such as wind farm turbines and the motors that power the new generation of electric cars.
There’s no better place to understand China’s true sacrifice than the shores of Baotou toxic lake. Apparently created by damming a river and flooding what was once farm land, the lake is a “tailings pond”: a dumping ground for waste byproducts. It takes just 20 minutes to reach the lake by car from the centre of the city, passing through abandoned countryside dominated by the industrial architecture on the horizon.
You can see the lake on Google Maps
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