Spring 2017

Artist Project / Details on the Rare Earth Frontier

Extreme extraction

Elizabeth Knafo

A Molycorp mining claim near its mine in Mountain Pass, California. All images from Elizabeth Knafo, Rare Earth, 2014.

At a place called Mountain Pass in the Mojave Desert, just outside California’s Mojave National Preserve, is a recently bankrupt rare earth mine and processing plant. There are seventeen rare earth elements, which are divided into “heavies” and “lights” based on their relative atomic weights. The heavies are crucial components in consumer electronics and military technology, in the physical infrastructure and digital capabilities of the internet, and in surveillance tools. They are used in the computing, display, and maintenance of systems of global trade, digital warfare, and militarized policing, as well as in the storage servers where social media sites and digital surveillance data are warehoused. Heavy rare earths, which Molycorp, Inc., the company that owned the mine in California, was hoping to extract, are, at this time, irreplaceable ingredients in all things digital. Light rare earths, on the other hand, are used in more mundane industrial applications, such as UV window coatings and petroleum production.

The rare earth mine had been in operation for fifty years, but was closed in 2002 by environmental regulatory agencies. The operation was reopened and expanded in 2010; the project was dubbed “Project Phoenix,” presumably in reference to the resurrection of the mine. (At the time of its 2002 closure, the operation had in fact been owned by another company of the same name; the newly formed company behind the 2010 reopening purchased the name and the site in 2008.) 

At the groundbreaking ceremony, Molycorp emphasized “green” energy and national security as their rationales for beginning to mine again. Those speaking on behalf of the company touted the uses of rare earths in wind turbines and electric cars, and asserted that the mine would help make the United States independent of China’s rare earth supply. (Over 90 percent of the rare earths on the world market comes from Chinese mines). Neither Molycorp nor the politicians at the event made any mention of the radioactive waste generated in rare earth processing. Nor did they mention the fact that in 1986, the company town at Mountain Pass closed down after workers and their families started to get sick. There is a dearth of public information on what effect the radioactive dust plaguing the mine’s surroundings had on the town’s closure, and what effect it has on the area to this day. For their part, the mine’s management claimed that the cost of running the town became prohibitive once the mine’s profits began to fall, in part due to a federal government decision to make unleaded gasoline—the production of which did not require a particular rare earth mined at the site—the official standard in the United States. 

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