Amid widespread environmental fallout, where does China’s metal mining sector go from here?

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Environment

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Environmental damage caused by mining and refining processes like smelting are not uncommon.

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In the last two years alone, one site lists 10 major tailings dam failures alone; environmental damage from tailing ponds is only the thin end of the wedge when it comes to the wider remit of potential environmental consequences arising from mineral extraction.

Yet not one of those events listed was in China, despite half the world’s metals being refined and produced there, and a sizable proportion of the world’s mines being in China.

Why is that? Is it because these incidents don’t happen in China?

I think we know that’s not the case. No, the reality is there has been a conspiracy of silence around the environmental consequences, not just abroad but in China, as well.

The most dangerous job in the world

A recent Washington Post article shed light on some examples, noting metal mining has become the most dangerous form of employment — earning that dubious status above coal mining in China that, statistically speaking, was the deadliest job on earth 20 years ago.

Today, more metal miners are dying — 484 in 2017 — than coal workers following a government clampdown on illegal coal mining and better implementation of rules and safety codes.

The damage is not just in mining accidents. In fact, more widely deaths and reductions in life expectancy are far more common from environmental pollution, such as the uncontrolled release of heavy metals.

Output of base metals such as copper, lead, zinc and aluminum has increased from 6 million tons in 1998 to the point where China churns out half the world’s base metals and steel today.

Rising pollution

Due to lax controls, that has resulted in widespread contamination of air, soil and water.

Research by the Guangxi Institute of Occupational Technology and Nanning University is quoted as finding samples of dust on road surfaces around Dachang with heavy-metal concentrations far above national safety limits: arsenic at 111 times, cadmium at 55 times and lead at 2.45 times.

That same dust is in workers’ homes, on their clothes and their food.

Water discharges containing similar levels of dangerous heavy metals are used for irrigation of agricultural crops resulting in the authorities reporting back in 2014 that 20% of the country’s farmland was contaminated and one-third of its surface water unfit for human contact, never mind consumption.

The reasons why this widespread destruction of the countryside — and, by extension, the population dependent on and living near such enterprises are allowed to continue — are many and varied.

Despite the heroic work of some officials and bodies, widespread corruption undermines the implementation of existing laws and regulations. For western firms struggling to compete with Chinese competitors, it is not hard to see that if you do not have to observe or comply with global standards of environmental control and management, you can save a significant amount of money and maintain profitability while undercutting your rivals.

Looking ahead

Beijing acted to improve the plight of coal miners some years ago: it could do the same for metalworkers. They will have to act this decade to remedy wider environmental degradation, as they have done for air pollution (at least for the prosperous eastern seaboard cities).

If they don’t, public unrest will begin to force their hand. A compliant population has put up with such abuse for decades, but younger generations are less willing to sacrifice their quality of life for national growth.

Have we seen peak metal in China? Can growth continue when it is causing such damage to the country and the population?

Competing forces are at work, complaints about unfair competition from abroad have largely fallen on deaf ears, but it will be internal pressures brought by unrest and protest that may be the defining dynamic to effect real change.

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Ten years from now, China’s metal mining and refining business will still be a sizable proportion of global output, but it will be cleaner and possibly less profitable as a result.

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