Antimony on the Hit List

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Green, Minor Metals, Supply & Demand

Traders and consumers are scurrying around for supplies in the antimony market following yet another clamp down by the authorities in Beijing on illegal mining operations in China according to a Reuters report. China produces 90% of the world’s antimony as this graph taken from USGS data illustrates:

When there is any hiccup in supplies from China the rest of the world holds its breath. It is not an exaggeration to say that without China there is almost no antimony supply. When Beijing began to enforce it’s drive to cull illegal dangerous and polluting mining operations, producers thought it would go the same way as many other such edicts from the center with local officials turning a blind eye to continued operation.  Although a direct link to cancer and heart failure has not been irrefutably proved it is known that prolonged exposure, such as that experienced by communities living and working in areas where the soil, air and water supply is heavily contaminated are at risk of lung diseases, heart problems and stomach ulcers if not cancer itself. One such area is the wasteland that is Lengshuijiang, in a remote area of mountainous Hunan province and home to China’s antimony mining and refining industry. Officials have closed over 100 illegal mines and processing facilities, leaving only two large processors still functioning. A handful of other facilities could reopen once they comply with environmental regulations a Financial Times article says but the rest will remain permanently closed. Unusually there has been full compliance from local politicians and civil authorities; may be because the area suffers high rates of lung cancer and everyone is facing up to the fact that something has to be done about it. Or it could be that following the execution of a couple of local government officials who took bribes from illegal mines in another Hunan city and a Lengshuijiang mine accident in which 26 miners died, persuaded miners and officials that Beijing was serious. Lengshuijiang has been declared one of 44 cities that are “natural resource exhausted cities and special action is being taken to tackle the problem.

Meanwhile exports have dropped and supplies are getting tight. Prices have risen 150% since January 2009 to nearly $11,000 per metric ton and are expected to rise further. It’s not that antimony’s uses as a fire retardant and alloying additive to lead are irreplaceable but the industry is well established in using antimony in these applications. A prolonged bout of high prices though will almost certainly result in some demand destruction as alternative products substitute for the metal. May be that would be no bad thing for the inhabitants of Lengshuijiang. A smaller, more environmentally conscientious industry would see a significant improvement in longevity for those that have to work and live to supply the world with this minor but crucial metal.

–Stuart Burns

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