Scientists in West Australia struck gold when they found high concentrations of the precious metal in termite hills. These gold-laden sediments are a good indication of deposits underground.
Enlisting the earth-moving skills of the termite takes some of the guesswork out of modern gold prospecting. Gold has been mined in this area of Australia for a century and a half, but as eroded sediments collect on the surface, the gold deposits get buried and become harder to find. When termites deliver the soil samples, researchers don’t have to drill in hopes of finding them, which makes the scouting process cheaper and less invasive.
Relations have been more testy than usual between the Environmental Protection Agency and mountaintop removal coal miners since last April, when EPA issued new rules to crack down on the practice. This week the agency went one step further—a step has never taken before. EPA revoked an already-approved permit for a mountaintop removal coal mine in West Virginia.
The decision to revoke the permit for Arch Coal Inc.’s Spruce Mine No. 1 in West Virginia’s rural Logan County marks the first time the EPA has withdrawn a water permit for a mining project that had previously been issued. It’s also only the second time in the 39-year history of the federal Clean Water Act that the agency has canceled a water permit for a project of any kind after it was issued, according to the agency. [Wall Street Journal]
The mine, located south of the West Virginia capital of Charleston, has been fighting to begin operation for more than a dozen years.
The Obama EPA began looking more closely at the Spruce Mine in September 2009. But debate over the proposed operation dates back to the late 1990s, when then-U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II issued an injunction that blocked the mine, which then was proposed for more than 3,000 acres. After the Haden ruling, the company reduced the size of its proposal and the operation underwent much more intense scrutiny, in the form of a full-blown Environmental Impact Statement by the Corps of Engineers, which approved the new mining configuration in January 2007 [Charleston Gazette].
Renewable energy, information technology, and many other industries are in a political and economic bind—they require the obscure periodic table denizens called rare earth metals, and nearly all the world’s supply of those elements comes from China. But now, for the first time in years, rare earth elements will be mined at an American site. The mining company Molycorp says it has the permits in hand to reopen a mine in Mountain Pass, California, that could soon meet much of the U.S. demand for these elements.
The materials that come out of Mountain Pass will be used to make high-strength magnets necessary for electric vehicle engines, wind turbines, and a variety of other high-tech products. However, the U.S. possesses neither the technology nor the licensing to manufacture the neodymium-iron-boron alloy necessary for their production. As such, Molycorp has partnered with Japanese firm Hitachi Metals to manufacture the magnets in the United States. [Popular Science]
After its projected 2012 opening, the Molycorp mine should produce about 20,000 tons of material per year, the company says. Right now the world’s demand stands at about 125,000 tons per year, and Technology Review reports that this number could jump to 225,000 in five years. China has a stranglehold on the rare earth market, meaning political maelstroms could disrupt the supply.
Rare earth metals are a hot commodity in today’s high-tech world. Until recently these elements were fairly obscure members of the periodic table; now, their usefulness in everything from hybrid cars to solar panels has boosted their profile.
The 17 rare earth metals, some with exotic names like lanthanum and europium, form unusually strong lightweight magnetic materials. Lanthanum is used in the batteries of hybrid cars, neodymium is used in magnets in the electric generators of wind turbines and europium is used in colored phosphors for energy-efficient lighting. [Reuters]
Their new necessity has also provided a boost to China, where the vast majority of these elements are currently mined. China’s dominance has been brought into sharp focus over the past three weeks, when China blocked all shipments of rare earth metals to Japan in response to a diplomatic incident concerning a Chinese fishing boat in territorially disputed waters.
Beijing has denied the embargo, yet the lack of supply may soon disrupt manufacturing in Japan, trade and industry minister Akihiro Ohata told reporters Tuesday. [Technology Review]
When the Environmental Protection Agency issued new rules in April attempting to crack down on mountaintop removal coal mining, you knew it was only a matter of time before the major push-back arrived. With elections looming and politicians looking to score some points at home, that time is now.
Joe Manchin, the Democratic governor of coal-rich West Virginia, says his state will sue the EPA and ask a U.S. District Court to throw out the agency’s strict new guidelines. For Mr. Manchin, the timing is certainly good:
Mr. Manchin is running for the U.S. Senate seat, formerly held by the late Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd, against Republican businessman John Raese, who has pulled ahead in some polls. The EPA’s policies on mining and climate change are controversial in West Virginia, where coal mining is a major industry supporting thousands of jobs. [Wall Street Journal]
The Ting River
The waste water came from the Zijinshan mine in China’s Fujian province. Though earlier this month mine operators blamed weather for waste water entering the river, this week they admitted to and contaminating the river with–as The Sydney Morning Herald puts it–“four Olympic-size swimming pools” worth of waste water containing acidic copper.
Zijin’s board of directors expresses “its deep regret regarding the incident and the improper handling of information disclosure by the company, for causing substantial losses to the fish farmers located at the reservoir downstream of the mine and having a harmful impact on society,” the company said yesterday. [Bloomberg Businessweek]
Chinese police have detained two of the mine’s operators. Meanwhile, acidic copper has reportedly killed 4 million pounds of fish and threatens drinking water.
Reports from China’s official Xinhua News Agency suggest that Zijin is being required only to fix the problem and compensate locals with an offer of three yuan for every kilogram of dead fish. That makes the potential payout about 6 million yuan, [about $900,000]. [Sidney Morning Herald]
The West Virginia coal mining accident yesterday killed at least 25, and hope is starting to fade for finding the four missing miners alive. It’s the deadliest mining accident in the United States in more than a quarter-century.
A methane explosion appears to be the cause. Normally when DISCOVER covers methane scares, it has to do with the potent greenhouse gas leaking from permafrost or the ocean. But for coal miners, methane represents a more clear and present danger: Underground mines can fill up with the flammable gas, and a stray spark can light it and cause an explosion. As a result, mines are required to have giant fans that blow methane out of the working area.
Methane not only appears to have caused the accident, it also held up the rescue effort. Operations had to be suspended because of a build-up of methane in the mine. It’s hoped that they can resume later today — but it will require drilling about 1,000 feet, through two coal seams, to get to where the men might have been able to find shelter [NPR].
Methane is ubiquitous in coal mines. The gas, like coal, is a molecule made of hydrogen and carbon, and it is produced from the same raw material as coal, ancient piles of biological material, by the same processes. Much of the natural gas sold in the United States is drawn from coal seams. In undisturbed coal deposits, the methane is kept loosely attached to the coal molecules by compression; when the area is opened up by miners, the pressure is reduced and the methane bubbles out [The New York Times].
It’s been a busy week for President Obama and energy. Two days ago his administration rolled out plans to expand millions of new acres of ocean off the U.S. coastline for oil and gas drilling; after we posted on it, many DISCOVER fans expressed their disdain for Obama’s move on our Facebook page. Today, though, there’s good news for the environmentalists: Obama‘s EPA said today it will put stricter restrictions on mountaintop removal coal mining.
At “mountaintop removal” mines, which are unique to Appalachian states, miners blast the peaks off mountains to reach coal seams inside and then pile vast quantities of rubble in surrounding valleys [Washington Post]. The chemicals that result from decapitating a mountain and mining coal tend to run off into the the valleys and pollute rivers and streams, however. So when 80beats last left mountaintop removal, a group of scientists had taken a public stance in the journal Science calling for a complete end to this kind of mining.
Is the Vietnamese government following China’s example, and muffling online dissent to pursue its own political ends? Internet giant Google seems to think so. Writing on the company’s online security blog, Neel Mehta of Google’s security team has revealed that tens of thousands of Vietnamese computers were subject to a potent virus attack this week–and that the attack targeted activists who are opposed to a Chinese mining project in Vietnam.
Google writes that the activists mistakenly downloaded malicious software that infected their computers. The infected machines could be used to spy on the users, and were also used to attack Web sites and blogs that voiced opposition to the mining project. This cyber attack, Google says, was an attempt to “squelch” opposition to bauxite mining in Vietnam, a highly controversial issue in the country. The computer security firm, McAfee Inc, which detected the malware, went a step further, saying its creators “may have some allegiance to the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” The Vietnamese Foreign Ministry had no immediate comment [Moneycontrol].
Google’s current spat with China began with a similar accusation, when the company accused Beijing of hacking into and spying on Chinese activists’ gmail accounts. Just this week, journalists in China said their email accounts were compromised because of yet another spyware attack.
Mountaintop removal—the aptly-named mining practice that blasts away peaks and leaves piles of rubble—must stop, a group of researchers write this week in the journal Science. Taking an unusually political stance, a group of hydrologists, engineers and ecologists called for an immediate end to the practice.
“Until somebody can show that the water [that runs off mine sites] can be cleaned up . . . this has got to be stopped,’’ said Margaret Palmer, a professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science who is the study’s lead author. For now, Palmer said, “there is no evidence that things like this can be fixed” [Boston Globe]. The researchers contend that mountaintop removal destroys forests in the Appalachians and taints water through toxic runoff.