China continues fight illegal rare earth mining

Updated: 2011-08-19 21:31


  Comments() Print Mail Large Medium  Small 分享按钮 0

FUZHOU - Although the government has been working to crack down on illegal rare earth mining since last year, villagers from East China's Fujian province have complained that profiteering still prompts unlawful miners to take risks by playing "hide-and-seek" with local law enforcement.

Li Chukai, head of the village of Xianghu, described the illegal mining as "rampant."

"It's very hard to crack down on them," he said.

Tucked away in the southeastern mountains of Fujian province, the village has been severely affected by illegal rare earth mining. At one of the illegal mines identified by villagers, trees have been toppled and leaking waste barrels have contaminated the ground.

At another illegal mine, polluted water has been diverted to the villagers' farms, destroying rice fields and killing off a large number of fish and shrimp, Li Chukai said.

"Illegal rare earth mines were set up here three years ago. They use ammonium sulfate and oxalate to extract rare earth metals, while contaminated water is pumped into farms without being treated," said villager Li Sida.

Since then, more than 100 local residents have volunteered to patrol the village, looking for illegal mines. The volunteers have resorted to vandalism, destroying water pipes and equipment belonging to illegal mines after locating them. However, they always end up coming back, according to Li Chukai.

"A crackdown by the local government fared no better, as a majority of the miners managed to flee when the government's enforcers came. They return to their mines after the enforcers leave," Li Chukai said.

A report from the Hushan Township government showed that another four villages in the region have also been affected by illegal rare earth mines.

"China has limited the exploitation of rare earth metals, so their prices have started to surge.  People have taken to illegal mining to reap significant profits," said Fan Linyun, head of Hushan Township.

Widely used in the manufacturing of high-tech products such as flat-screen monitors, electric car batteries, wind turbines, missiles and aerospace alloys, rare earth metals are some of China's most valuable natural resources.

Currently, the country supplies more than 90 percent of the world's rare earth metals. However, China's rare earth metal reserves only account for about one-third of the world's total, according to government statistics.

Guo Zhibiao, an inspector from the Land and Resources Bureau of Yongding County, said it has been very difficult to halt the exploitation of the region's rare earth metal reserves.

"We can't completely destroy the mines, as the mountains prevent us from transporting large machinery to their work sites," he said.

"In addition, some of the miners have connections with the villagers. When we arrive, many of the miners run away and we cannot get evidence to arrest or punish them," said Guo.

Guo said local inspection teams have identified 12 illegal mines, issued 28 production-halting notices, demolished 23 temporary housing units built for the miners and damaged 31 generators and 64 settling ponds since January.

Since China has yet to map out regulations specifically targeting illegal rare earth metal mining, local law enforcement can only punish miners based on regulations regarding damage to forests and other national resources, which typically bring only mild administrative punishments, Guo said.

Under regulations passed by the region's forestry authorities, miners only have to pay a fine of 10 yuan (less than two dollars) for every square meter of forest that they damage.

"Such a light punishment is hardly a deterrent," said Guo.

Chen Qingxiang, director of an inspection team from the Land and Resources Bureau of Yongding County, said that coordinated enforcement by police, forestry, land and resource and transportation departments must be conducted to break the production and trade chains of the illegal mines.

"Our inspection team is made up of just a few people, and they are poorly equipped. Therefore, we must count on the help of villagers and government departments. Otherwise, the problems we are currently facing will continue to plague us in the future," said Chen.