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Green fades to black: Dirty secrets of renewables

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By Mike Killalea, Editor & Publisher

Electric vehicles are widely praised for their clean-burning, emission-free engines. Clearly, electric vehicles are the way forward for a cleaner, healthier world, right?

Not so fast. Mining the minerals needed to manufacture batteries for electric cars generates huge amounts of toxic waste. Miners, including children, endure ghastly working conditions – unhealthy, unsafe and deadly.

A new report, bolstered by several investigations last year, starkly contradicts this comfortable myth.

Triple the ‘human toxicity’

In fact, battery-powered electric vehicles (BEV) generate three times the “human toxicity” of conventional internal combustion engines, according to a December 2016 study by management consultancy Arthur D. Little. The study of 100% electrically powered BEVs excluded hybrid vehicles, which are powered both electrically and through internal combustion.

Electric cars depend on lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries, as do a host of devices from smart phones to power tools to laptops. However, while smart phones typically use 5-10 grams of cobalt and laptops about an ounce, the typical BEV battery requires as much as 20 pounds of cobalt.

Cobalt mining for $1 a day

Li-ion batteries have three main components – lithium, the electrolyte; cobalt, the cathode, or positive terminal; and graphite, the anode, or negative terminal.

None of these materials is easily mined. They are not found in large quantities and are geographically concentrated. The impoverished Central African country Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for example, produces about 60%-65% of the world’s cobalt.

Both the Washington Post and Amnesty International recently published exposés on the dangerous, backbreaking and unhealthful work of mining cobalt. As many as 150,000 local miners in the DRC, including children as young as seven, use crude hand tools to dig out cobalt-bearing rocks as deep as 30 m subsurface. These hand-dug, “artisanal” mines often lack support beams and are poorly ventilated.

Accidents are common, according to reports. Amnesty International said more than 80 miners were reported as killed in mine accidents between September 2014 and December 2015. “However, the true figure is likely to be far higher, as many accidents go unrecorded and bodies are left buried underground,” states Amnesty’s report, titled “This is What We Die For.”

The Washington Post also explores the impact of graphite mining in China and recovering lithium in Argentina and Chile.

I’d rather roughneck

Thirty meters subsurface might sound shallow to a driller. But these mines are dug by hand, and the miners descend on ropes with zero safety and health equipment. Head lamps and chisels constitute their gear.

Mine entry? A piece of lumber laid across the mine opening with a dangling rope to lower oneself into the depths.

Besides the obvious dangers of falling, cave-ins and the like, the long-term health impact is also bleak. Continued exposure to cobalt can cause a host of maladies, including breathing problems, birth defects and the potentially fatal “hard metal lung disease.”

As reward for their labors, a worker earns the princely sum of a dollar, maybe two. I’d rather roughneck, and I bet they would, too. DC

Email Mike Killalea at mike.killalea@iadc.org.

Click here to read about cobalt mining in the Washington Post.

Click here to read “This Is What We Die For.”

Click here to access Arthur D. Little’s study on BEV toxicity.

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