If you’ve seen images of the tar sands tailings ponds and couldn’t believe your eyes, hang onto your seats because this massive toxic lake in China puts Canada’s oil patch to shame. The Baogang Steel and Rare Earth Complex in Inner Mongolia is surrounded by an enormous lake of toxic sludge, and it’s a scene of utter environmental destruction, like something out of the bleakest dystopian sci-fi click you could imagine. The worst part, perhaps, is in knowing that it became this way as a result of human activity.
The Baogang Steel and Rare Earth Complex, located near Baotou, Mongolia, is one of the world’s main suppliers of rare earth minerals, which are used to make all manner of electronic gadgets, including smart phones, flat screen televisions—as well as things like wind turbines and electric car motors. Harvesting minerals from the Earth in such quantities has depleted resources substantially, and the scene surrounding the plant is enough to make you question the humanity’s collective sanity.
Tim Maughan at the BBC describes it first-hand:
“From where I’m standing, the city-sized Baogang Steel and Rare Earth complex dominates the horizon, its endless cooling towers and chimneys reaching up into grey, washed-out sky. Between it and me, stretching into the distance, lies an artificial lake filled with a black, barely-liquid, toxic sludge. Dozens of pipes line the shore, churning out a torrent of thick, black, chemical waste from the refineries that surround the lake. The smell of sulphur and the roar of the pipes invades my senses. It feels like hell on Earth.”
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Maughan visited Baogang with a group of architects and designers known as the Unknown Fields Division, with the goal of tracing consumer goods from American shelves to their origins in China. China is home to 95 percent of the world’s total supply of rare earth elements, and the Bayan Obo mines near Baotou are home to about 70 percent of that total.
The toxic “lake” at Baotu is ultimately a large tailings pond created by damming a river and flooding what was once farmland, and witnessing the scene left an indelible impression on Maughan.
“After seeing the impact of rare earth mining myself, it’s impossible to view the gadgets I use every day in the same way,” he writes. “As I watched Apple announce their smart watch recently, a thought crossed my mind: once we made watches with minerals mined from the Earth and treated them like precious heirlooms; now we use even rarer minerals and we’ll want to update them yearly. Technology companies continually urge us to upgrade; to buy the newest tablet or phone. But I cannot forget that it all begins in a place like Bautou, and a terrible toxic lake that stretches to the horizon.”
Image via YouTube screengrab