China Prepares to Issue New Standards To Clean Up Rare Earths Mining Sector

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SHENZHEN, China--China's government in late February will release new standards for the mining of rare earth minerals, including measures to reduce water pollution, according to state media reports.

The state-run newspaper China Daily Jan. 7 quoted Huang Xiaowei of the National Engineering Research Center for Rare Earth Materials as saying the new standards would raise the cost of mining rare earths.

According to Huang, the new standards would restrict the amount of ammonia nitrogen allowed in wastewater from rare earth mining to 15 milligrams per liter (mg/l), instead of the current 25 mg/l. Quantities of phosphorous and radioactive elements in wastewater also would be limited, Huang stated. A Dec. 29 report in the state-run newspaper People's Daily said the phosphorus limit would be 0.5 mg/l.

The paper also said the new rules would set energy consumption limits for extraction companies.

As commonly defined, there are 17 rare earth elements: the series of 15 lanthanide elements starting in the periodic table with lanthanum, plus the elements yttrium and scandium. Many of the elements are not rare in overall quantity, but often do not occur in sufficient concentrations to be economical for mining.

“Green” technologies such as hybrid electric vehicles, wind turbines, and compact fluorescent lights are among many products dependent on rare earth metals. They also are used in cell phones, computer hard drives, and many defense systems.

Grace Period for Companies

An announcement on the Ministry of Environmental Protection website Dec. 30 said extraction companies would have one to two years to meet the new requirements, though Huang said the grace period likely would be two to three years.

People's Daily reported that about 90 percent of companies would not be able to meet the new standards if they became effective immediately.

On Dec. 28, the Ministry of Commerce announced new quotas for rare earth exports for the first half of 2011, with a limit of 14,446 metric tons, down from the 16,305 metric tons allowed for export during the first half of 2010. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said the scaling back of exports is necessary to protect the environment (34 INER 49, 1/5/11).

The Chinese government also is forming a “rare earth industry association” to oversee production and mining of the materials and to spread knowledge of best practices within the industry, according to numerous reports.

By Michael Standaert