Underwater mining proposed for rare earth metals used in 'renewable' tech

Saw this mentioned on the news the other day:

Science editor David Shukman: ‘[it] raises a really difficult question: If the world’s going to go green we may have to start mining rocks like these from the deep ocean’.

Mining rare earth metals underwater… what could possibly go wrong? When they do this on land it creates giant lakes of toxic waste water, destroying the surrounding ecology and poisoning the people:

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.

Rusting pipelines meander for miles from factories processing rare earths in Baotou out to the man-made lake where, mixed with water, the foul-smelling radioactive waste from this industrial process is pumped day after day. No signposts and no paved roads lead here, and as we approach security guards shoo us away and tail us. When we finally break through the cordon and climb sand dunes to reach its brim, an apocalyptic sight greets us: a giant, secret toxic dump, made bigger by every wind turbine we build.

The lake instantly assaults your senses. Stand on the black crust for just seconds and your eyes water and a powerful, acrid stench fills your lungs.

For hours after our visit, my stomach lurched and my head throbbed. We were there for only one hour, but those who live in Mr Yan’s village of Dalahai, and other villages around, breathe in the same poison every day.


As more factories sprang up, the banks grew higher, the lake grew larger and the stench and fumes grew more overwhelming.

‘It turned into a mountain that towered over us,’ says [retired farmer] Mr Su. ‘Anything we planted just withered, then our animals started to sicken and die.’

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.

Since then, maybe because of pressure from the companies operating around the lake, which pump out waste 24 hours a day, the results of ongoing radiation and toxicity tests carried out on the lake have been kept secret and officials have refused to publicly acknowledge health risks to nearby villages.

Now imagine that happening on the ocean floor where they can’t even pretend to contain the toxic outflow.

British scientists exploring an underwater mountain in the Atlantic Ocean have discovered a treasure trove of rare minerals.

Their investigation of a seamount more than 500km (300 miles) from the Canary Islands has revealed a crust of “astonishingly rich” rock.

Samples brought back to the surface contain the scarce substance tellurium in concentrations 50,000 times higher than in deposits on land.

Tellurium is used in a type of advanced solar panel, so the discovery raises a difficult question about whether the push for renewable energy may encourage mining of the seabed.

The rocks also contain what are called rare earth elements that are used in wind turbines and electronics.

Energy implications

Known as Tropic Seamount, the mountain stands about 3,000m tall – about the size of one of the middle-ranging Alpine summits – with a large plateau at its top, lying about 1,000m below the ocean surface.

Using robotic submarines, researchers from the UK’s National Oceanography Centre found that the crust is dark and fine-grained and stretches in a layer roughly 4cm thick over the entire surface of the mountain.


Dr Bram Murton, the leader of the expedition, told the BBC that he had been expecting to find abundant minerals on the seamount but not in such concentrations.

“These crusts are astonishingly rich and that’s what makes these rocks so incredibly special and valuable from a resource perspective.”

He has calculated that the 2,670 tonnes of tellurium on this single seamount represents one-twelfth of the world’s total supply.

And Dr Murton has come up with a hypothetical estimate that if the entire deposit could be extracted and used to make solar panels, it could meet 65% of the UK’s electricity demand.

Of course that ‘demand’ is non-negotiable. In fact doing this will probably increase the demand further still, alongside the oil, gas & nuclear industries which the govt has been actively encouraging, rather than winding down their operations as they should. I’m starting to think that demand follows supply in this instance, as well as many others (eg: consumerism), rather than the other way round as economists usually insist. It continues:

He says he is not advocating deep-sea mining, which has yet to start anywhere in the world and is likely to be highly controversial because of the damage it could cause to the marine environment.

But Dr Murton does want his team’s discovery, part of a major research project called MarineE-Tech, to trigger a debate about where vital resources should come from.

"If we need green energy supplies, then we need the raw materials to make the devices that produce the energy so, yes, the raw materials have to come from somewhere.

"We either dig them up from the ground and make a very large hole or dig them from the seabed and make a comparatively smaller hole.

“It’s a dilemma for society - nothing we do comes without a cost.”

Scientists are now weighing up the relative risks and merits of mining on land as opposed to on the seabed.

Less of the ‘we’, Murton you industry shill! This is something that industry ‘needs’ (read: ‘desires’) not in the interests of society but in service to money and the disembodied designs of capital to grow itself no matter what the cost. Look at what they already did:

Mines on land often require forests and villages to be cleared, overlying rocks to be removed and roads or railways to be built in order to extract ores with relatively weak concentrations of minerals.

By contrast, mines on the seabed would extract far richer ores, covering a smaller area and with no immediate impact on people - but instead killing marine life wherever digging machines are deployed and potentially devastating a far wider area.

One major concern is the effect of plumes of dust, stirred up by excavation of the ocean floor, spreading for long distances and smothering all life wherever it settles.

To understand the implications, the expedition to Tropic Seamount conducted an experiment, the first of its kind, to mimic the effects of mining and to measure the resulting plume.

Deploying from the UK research ship James Cook, a remotely operated vehicle deliberately pumped out hundreds of litres of sediment-filled water every minute while other robotic sensors were positioned downstream in the ocean current.

According to Dr Murton, early results indicate that dust was hard to detect 1km away from the source of the plume, suggesting that the impact of mining could be more localised than many fear.

So to find out if mining would be highly damaging they basically just went ahead and did it anyway just to measure the results - hooray for science! This is all insane. More of the gambling man holding up precious family heirlooms in front of his wife and kids to see which he can get away with taking down the pawn shop to pay off his debts. He’ll be after our kidneys next!


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And this is why “green technology” is an oxymoron. For the past few thousand years, every technological innovation we invent to solve our self-made problems has only resulted in a dozen more. When people suggest solar panels and compact fluorescent lightbulbs as “eco-friendly” solutions, I’ve learned not to waste my time or effort explaining the pollution involved in production and disposal.

“Smart” cars are another prime example. About as smart as the phones these days, ALL cars use more petroleum just in their production than they ever use in a lifetime of driving. Humans simply shouldn’t have vehicles. If I wanted to be an “eco-friendly” automobile driver, I would choose something older, with less plastic and less computerized crap, then convert it to biodiesel. Something will l always be burned.

Another article from BBC Science tracing the history of deep sea mining back to the CIA’s covert attempt to recover a soviet sub from the ocean floor in 1974:

Now they’re talking about smashing up hydrothermal vents to get at the metals they contain:

Run by a Canadian firm, Nautilus Minerals, the project will be managed from a ship in the tropical waters of the Bismarck Sea off Papua New Guinea. Three of the vast machines will be lowered to the slopes of an undersea volcano.

There they will encounter a stretch of seabed covered in hydrothermal vents. These strange twisting chimneys are formed by boiling water blasting up from the rock.

As with most fields of vents, this one is astonishingly rich in valuable metals. The site is named Solwara 1 - “salt water” in the local language.

But the hydrothermal vents host thriving communities of marine life - snails, worms and shrimp that have evolved to cope with very specific conditions.

In some cases these creatures are extremely rare, which is why the prospect of deep sea mining is highly controversial.

The plan is for Kewa to guide the steel teeth of the mining machines so they methodically demolish the vents, pulverising them into fragments.

The tiny pieces of rock should then be small enough to be piped up to the surface. On board the ship, a processing plant will churn out a multitude of specks of copper and gold that could be worth billions. A Chinese firm has already agreed to buy the lot.

Once the riches of Solwara 1 have been extracted, the machines will be moved to another dozen sites lined up nearby.

But it’s okay because it will take up less space than mines on land and it will be deep enough that tuna fish won’t be affected:

“Where we’ll be operating, it’s cold and dark,” says one senior Nautilus executive. “There are no tuna there, they need entirely different conditions near the surface of the ocean.”

This reassurance has been emphasised in public meetings. And Nautilus has also been investing in community relations, paying for mobile health care and even a new bridge.

For Mesulam this is mere PR. He calls the mine “experimental” - there could be unexpected consequences, and he has the churches and some politicians on his side.

Token attention is paid to the ecological consequences, for the vents, the deep sea floor and the consequences of large dust plumes spreading about for hundreds of miles, David Attenborough’s opinion is sought out:

When he sees our video of the giant machines being readied in Papua New Guinea, he is aghast. “It’s heartbreaking,” he says.

His greatest concern is for the hydrothermal vents, those delicate mineral-rich chimneys which act as oases for unusual creatures.

“That’s where life began, and that we should be destroying these things is so deeply tragic - that humanity should just plough on with no regard for the consequences, because they don’t know what they are.”

But the emphasis is on ‘Our Needs’ and dishonest suggestions that deep sea mining will mean less mining on land with all the associated human rights and environmental atrocities (obviously it’s not either/or - the underwater operations will be in addition to land-based operations). Bram Murton makes a reappearance:

But there is a vigorous debate among scientists. [hahaha]

The geologist Bram Murton has warned of “an ill-informed knee-jerk reaction” to ocean mining which, he says, offers the potential to support a low-carbon future.

But Glover says that ultimately it’s about whether it’s right for humans to go into an area and destroy species we know nothing about.

All this raises an awkward set of questions. Where should we get our minerals from? Should phones and wind turbines and electric cars carry a label explaining the origins of their raw materials?

Tins of tuna state that they are “dolphin-friendly” so should products using cobalt say if the metal was mined on land or in the ocean? What would the best choice be anyway? Should the vents so special to Attenborough be spared and only nodule mining allowed?

Some argue that proper recycling of metals would negate the need for deep sea mining in the first place, but others think that that won’t produce a fraction of what’s needed.

It’s all a pack of lies, conflating the ‘needs’ of industrial society with ‘our’ supposedly essential requirements of mobile phones, laptops, electric cars and wind turbines. Real human and nonhuman needs for a livable biosphere get thrown under the bus of technological ‘progress’ and the continued, cancerous growth of the dominant society.