TRACES: YELLOW RIVER
Pipes to a Rare Earths Lake. Bayin, Gansu, China. 2011
Pipes carry sludge-like effluent to a tailings pond on the outskirts of this medium sized city. The grey, greenish patches on top of the hill are the dried-up particles of industrial waste that have blown out off the rare earths lake.
From smart phones to wind turbines, the term rare earths refers to a group of minerals important in the manufacture of a wide range of everyday high-technology products, including the latest clean energy technologies. Once a nation that focused on exporting rare earths in their raw forms, China has shifted its end goal from production to innovation. With government support, cheap labour and lax environmental regulations, its rare earth industries have undercut all competitors worldwide. China now accounts for 97% of the global output of rare earths. On 13 March 2012, the United States, Japan, and European Union filed a World Trade Organization complaint against China for restricting exports of these minerals and driving up prices.
The effluent in the lake contains toxic chemicals, but also radioactive elements such as thorium, which if ingested, cause cancers of the pancreas and lungs, and leukemia. Nearly two-thirds of China's rural population, more than 500 million people, use water contaminated by human or industrial waste making gastrointestinal cancer the number one killer in the countryside.