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MINING

Spain’s vast supplies of untapped rare minerals pit environmentalists against high-tech

Spain's untapped rare earths (the second biggest supply in Europe) are stoking tensions between mining companies and environmentalists over fears of the devastating impact of extracting minerals considered essential for a high-tech and low-carbon economy.

This photograph taken on June 22, 2021 shows vials filled with pieces of magnets containing rare earths (terres rares) after they were extracted from electronic waste at the Bureau de Recherches Geologiques et Minieres (BRGM) (Geological and Mining Research Office) in Orleans, central France. (Photo by Christophe ARCHAMBAULT / AFP)
Rare earths are essential in a range of high-tech products key to combatting climate change. Photo: Christophe ARCHAMBAULT/AFP

The group of 17 minerals are — despite their name — widely distributed across the globe, but exist in such thin concentrations that extracting even small quantities requires the processing of enormous quantities of ore.

Still, they are key ingredients in a range of high-tech and cutting-edge products, from wind turbines and electric vehicles to smart phones, medical devices and missile-guidance systems.

With China having a stranglehold on global supply and demand surging to meet the transition to a low-carbon economy, the political pressure – and financial incentive – to put strategic interests ahead of the environment is growing.

“Spain has the largest amount of rare earths in Europe after Finland. There is real potential,” said Vicente Gutiérrez Peinador, president of the National Confederation of Mining and Metallurgy Companies (Confedem).

Ninety-eight percent of the rare earths used in the EU are imported from China, prompting Brussels to recently urge member states to develop their own extraction capacities.

Spain’s reserves are estimated at 70,000 tonnes, according to the Geological and Mining Institute of Spain.

“On a global level this is not much, but on a European scale it is significant,” said Roberto Martínez, head of mineral resources at the institute.

‘Opportunity for Spain’

And it is enough to arouse the interest of investors as demand for the minerals continues to surge.

“It is an opportunity for Spain,” said Confedem’s Peinador, but also “for Europe”.

“Two sites in particular are considered interesting: one in Monte Galineiro, in Galicia,” and the other in the province of Ciudad Real, in the Castilla y Leon region, said Martinez.

Only the 240-hectare (590-acre) Matamulas site in Ciudad Real has so far been the subject of an application to mine.

The site is rich in monazite — an ore containing rare earth minerals including thorium, lanthanum and cerium.

A cyclist wears a protective face mask while riding along a dusty roadv where dozens of factories processing rare earths
China has a stranglehold on global supply of rare earths — along with the environmental devastation their extraction creates Photo: FREDERIC J. BROWN / AFP

However, the project has been blocked: the region refused the mining permit filed by Madrid-based Quantum Mineria in 2019 due to concerns about its environmental impact.

“This deposit is located in an area of great environmental value”, between two protected areas, said Elena Solis, coordinator for mining issues of the NGO Ecologists in Action.

It would involve “moving an astronomical amount of earth, which would put the whole area at risk”, said Solis, who also pointed to the “enormous amount of water” needed for this operation and the risk of pollution by toxic or even radioactive dust.

Holes filled in

These arguments were rejected by the company, which lodged a legal appeal.

The refusal of the permit “is incomprehensible” because “we are in a territory considered suitable for mining” by the administration, said Enrique Burkhalter, project director of Quantum Mineria, who denounced “unfounded fears” around the proposal.

According to the company, the extraction would take place on the surface, using a technique that limits the risk of toxic dust: the earth would be transported by truck to a factory, then sieved and finally returned to the site, once the minerals have been removed.

“It is not an open pit… The holes would be quickly filled in so that the crops could be cultivated again,” said Burkhalter.

These arguments are in turn rejected by Ecologists in Action, which believes that the land concerned will be permanently affected.

What will the courts say?

Beyond their differences, industrialists and environmentalists agree on the importance of the court’s decision, which could make or break the extraction projects.

The ruling, expected in several months’ time, will be “important” but “will not put an end to the debate”, said Martinez, who pointed to a paradox inherent in mining: “On paper, everyone wants to reduce external dependence, but as soon as we talk about concrete projects, it’s a different matter.”

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ENVIRONMENT

France gets help from EU neighbours as wildfires rage

Firefighting teams and equipment from six EU nations started to arrive in France on Thursday to help battle a spate of wildfires, including a fierce blaze in the parched southwest that has forced thousands to evacuate.

France gets help from EU neighbours as wildfires rage

Most of the country is sweltering under a summer heatwave compounded by a record drought – conditions most experts say will occur more often as a result of rapid climate change.

“We must continue, more than ever, our fight against climate disruption and … adapt to this climate disruption,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said after arriving at a fire command post in the village of Hostens, south of Bordeaux.

The European Commission said four firefighting planes would be sent to France from Greece and Sweden, as well as teams from Austria, Germany, Poland and Romania.

“Our partners are coming to France’s aid against the fires. Thank you to them. European solidarity is at work!” President Emmanuel Macron tweeted.

“Across the country over 10,000 firefighters and security forces are mobilised against the flames… These soldiers of fire are our heroes,” he said.

In total, 361 foreign firefighters were  dispatched to assist their 1,100 French colleagues deployed in the worst-hit part of the French southwest.

A first contingent of 65 German firefighters, followed by their 24 vehicles, arrived Thursday afternoon and were to go into action at dawn Friday, officials said.

Among eight major fires currently raging, the biggest is the Landiras fire in the southwest Gironde department, whose forests and beaches draw huge tourist crowds each summer.

It had already burned 14,000 hectares (35,000 acres) in July – the driest month seen in France since 1961 – before being contained, but it continued to smoulder in the region’s tinder-dry pine forests and peat-rich soil.

Since flaring up again Tuesday, which officials suspect may have been caused by arson, it has burned 7,400 hectares, destroyed or damaged 17 homes, and forced 10,000 people to quit their homes, said Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Mendousse of the Gironde fire and rescue service.

Borne said nine firefighting planes are already dumping water on the blaze, with two more to be in service by the weekend.

“Gigantic”
“We battled all night to stop the fire from spreading, notably to defend the village of Belin-Beliet,” Mendousse told journalists in Hostens.

On several houses nearby, people hung out white sheets saying: “Thank you for saving our homes” and other messages of support for the weary fire battalions.

“You’d think we’re in California, it’s gigantic… And they’re used to forest fires here but we’re being overwhelmed on all sides — nobody could have expected this,” Remy Lahlay, a firefighter deployed near Hostens in the Landes de Gascogne natural park, told AFP.

With temperatures in the region hitting nearly 40C on Thursday and forecast to stay high until at least Sunday, “there is a very serious risk of new outbreaks” for the Landiras fire, the prefecture of the Gironde department said.

Acrid smoke has spread across much of the southwestern Atlantic coast and its beaches that draw huge crowds of tourists each summer, with the regional ARS health agency “strongly” urging people to wear protective face masks.

The smoke also forced the closing of the A63 motorway, a major artery toward Spain, between Bordeaux and Bayonne.

The government has urged employers to allow leaves of absence for volunteer firefighters to help fight the fires.

Meanwhile, in Portugal, more than 1,500 firefighters were also battling a fire that has raged for days in the mountainous Serra da Estrela natural park in the centre of the country.

It has already burned 10,000 hectares, according to the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS).

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