So you think your gay Prius and wind turbines are clean and green? Think again

The green taliban tell us we need to go clean tech…and green tech and wind and electric this and electric that.

But what does that all mean?

Apparently it means if we use wind turbines and drive gay Prius cars we are being clean and green and using cool tech to do it.

But the reality of their clean green tech solutions is far from their slogans and bumper stickers…so far that their claims are actually lies.

Hidden in an unknown corner of Inner Mongolia is a toxic, nightmarish lake created by our thirst for smartphones, consumer gadgets and green tech, discovers Tim Maughan.

From where I’m standing, the city-sized Baogang Steel and Rare Earth complex dominates the horizon, its endless cooling towers and chimneys reaching up into grey, washed-out sky. Between it and me, stretching into the distance, lies an artificial lake filled with a black, barely-liquid, toxic sludge.

Dozens of pipes line the shore, churning out a torrent of thick, black, chemical waste from the refineries that surround the lake. The smell of sulphur and the roar of the pipes invades my senses. It feels like hell on Earth.

Welcome to Baotou, the largest industrial city in Inner Mongolia. I’m here with a group of architects and designers called the Unknown Fields Division, and this is the final stop on a three-week-long journey up the global supply chain, tracing back the route consumer goods take from China to our shops and homes, via container ships and factories.

You may not have heard of Baotou, but the mines and factories here help to keep our modern lives ticking. It is one of the world?s biggest suppliers of ?rare earth? minerals. These elements can be found in everything from magnets in wind turbines and electric car motors, to the electronic guts of smartphones and flatscreen TVs. In 2009 China produced 95% of the world’s supply of these elements, and it’s estimated that the Bayan Obo mines just north of Baotou contain 70% of the world’s reserves. But, as we would discover, at what cost?

A huge, disgusting non-green, dirty cost that the proponents of this technology never want you to find out.

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.

After it rains they plough, unstoppable, through roads flooded with water turned black by coal dust. They line up by the sides of the road, queuing to turn into one of Baotou?s many coal-burning power stations that sit unsettlingly close to freshly built apartment towers. Everywhere you look, between the half-completed tower blocks and hastily thrown up multi-storey parking lots, is a forest of flame-tipped refinery towers and endless electricity pylons. The air is filled with a constant, ambient, smell of sulphur. It?s the kind of industrial landscape that America and Europe has largely forgotten ? at one time parts of Detroit or Sheffield must have looked and smelled like this.

That is just the city.

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.

And 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. Earlier reportsclaim the lake is guarded by the military, but we see no sign. We pass a shack that was presumably a guard hut at one point but it?s abandoned now; whoever was here left in a hurry, leaving their bedding, cooking stove, and instant noodle packets behind when they did.

We reached the shore, and looked across the lake. I?d seen some photos before I left for Inner Mongolia, but nothing prepared me for the sight. It?s a truly alien environment, dystopian and horrifying. The thought that it is man-made depressed and terrified me, as did the realisation 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. Unsure of quite how to react, I take photos and shoot video on my cerium polished iPhone.

You can see the lake on Google Maps, and that hints at the scale. Zoom in far enough and you can make out the dozens of pipes that line the shore. Unknown Fields? Liam Young collected some samples of the waste and took it back to the UK to be tested. ?The clay we collected from the toxic lake tested at around three times background radiation,? he later tells me.

I wonder what Russel Norman and his band of green taliban have to say about this, or are they only concerned about living in their clean-tech environment here in NZ while Mongolia and China become wastelands so they can feel good and smug about themselves and their “contribution” to the planet?

 

– BBC

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