By Tim Maughan
The smell of sulfur coming out of the pipes is so strong, anyone could swear they are in hell.
However, it is the headquarters of Baogang Steel and Rare Earth, an industrial complex the size of a city located in Baotou, an area deep in Mongolia, in China.
A city covered in pipes
Baotou is a region rich in chemical elements known as "rare earths", essential to keep our modern way of life moving.
These minerals can be found in everything around us, from electric cars to all the electronic components of smartphones and flat screens.
Reports indicate that in 2009 China produced 95% of the rare earth consumed by the world, and they estimated that the Bayan Obo mine, north of Baotou, contained 70% of the planet's reserves.
These minerals have played a key role in the explosive growth of the Chinese economy in recent decades. The effect on Baotou has also been remarkable: despite what could be conceived of as a new gold rush for these chemicals, the city looks more like a border town.
In 1950, before rare earth mines began to make a profit, the city had a population of 97,000. Today this figure exceeds two and a half million.
The effect of the mines is also reflected in the architecture of Baotou, which at times seems to find itself caught between the capitalist thrust of the rich activity it develops and the memories of a communist past, or between the advertisements of big American brands and the statues celebrating Mao.
The weight of industries like Baogang is remarkable. The refinery has been developed so extensively, through pipelines that cross sidewalks and avenues, that it is difficult to say where the factories end and where the city begins.
Mud color business practices
In Baotou there is a plant specialized in the production of cerium, one of the most abundant rare earth minerals.
Among the main products of the facility is cerium oxide, which is used to polish the touch screens of smartphones and tablets.
Yet beyond the maze of pipes, tanks, and hangar-sized rooms, there are no people in the factory. In fact, it is not operating.
Representatives of the plant indicate that it is on break for maintenance, but there are no signs of cleaning operations or repairs.
An interpretation of this surprising inactivity, taking into account the high worldwide demand for the products it produces, reveals a commercial reality as dark as the artificial lake.
Apparently, the stoppage of activities in the factory is linked to an effort by the industry to generate an artificial shortage of the product, in order to drive the rise in prices of cerium oxide.
This is not new in China's business strategies. As early as 2012, the Xinhua news agency reported that the country's largest producer of rare earths had suspended operations to prevent a drop in prices.
Wealth and innovation at what cost?
However, apart from questionable commercial practices, one of the reasons that generate shortages of these products are the risks and toxic elements linked to the process of extraction and transformation into final products.
For example, cerium is mined after minerals are crushed and dissolved in sulfuric and nitric acids, which must be done on an industrial scale, so the process ends up producing a huge amount of poisonous waste.
It could be said that the dominance that China has over the rare earth market is due to the fact that the Asian giant is more willing to assume the environmental impact that this activity entails, unlike other countries.
And there is no better place to understand the magnitude of this true sacrifice than the shores of the toxic Baotou Lake.
In what was once farmers' land, a lake began to form as a result of dams in nearby rivers and floods. With the advent of mining, the place was transformed into a toxic waste dump.
A simple glance is enough to have nightmare images, with strange and horrifying environments.
The feeling is even more shocking when you consider that it is a man-made scenario for building telephones and even "green technology" such as wind-driven turbines to generate power or electric cars that do not emit carbon monoxide. .
Additionally, that irony has a latent risk: Liam Young, a researcher working in the United Kingdom, recently took samples of the mud collected in the lake and found that it has a high radioactive presence.
After witnessing the impact of rare earth mining, it is impossible for me to see the devices I use every day in the same way.
As Apple recently announced its smartwatch, a thought crossed my mind: Before, we made watches with minerals mined from the earth and treated them like precious relics; we now use even rarer minerals and want to change them annually.
Tech companies continually urge us to buy the new tablet or phone. But I can't forget that it all begins in a place like Bautou and in a terrible toxic lake, which stretches to the horizon.