THE Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) has given tentative support to Government's announcement of a pilot to establish the commercial value of rare earth elements in Jamaica's red mud deposits, which has potential to earn millions.
Energy Minister Phillip Paulwell, in a statement to the House of Representatives last Tuesday, said researchers from Japanese Company Nippon Light Metal Company Limited — a publicly traded aluminium supplier headquartered in Tokyo, with annual revenues of over US$7 billion and over 10,000 employees — had confirmed high concentrations of rare earth elements in Jamaica's red mud.
Paulwell said since Nippon's approach to the Government in January of last year with a research request, it had done basic chemical research analysis including the extraction of some rare earth elements. Having done that analysis, the company has established that Jamaica's red mud has significant concentrations of rare earth elements, particularly in comparison to other areas, and that those elements can be extracted efficiently.
Last Thursday, Diana McCaulay, founder and chief executive officer of JET, said "broadly" JET was "in favour of using waste product to investigate economic opportunities".
"It's a good idea to take what is now essentially waste and make it into something useful that can be sold, that's broadly speaking," she told the Jamaica Observer.
The Trust, however, has some reservations.
"Specifically, though, we have requested details of the precise type of process that will be used (in extracting the rare earth elements) because there are different kinds and I am waiting on hearing what the precise process is before I can really comment on what the environmental impacts are," McCaulay told the Observer.
She said the National Environmental Planning Agency (NEPA) is to supply those details.
"We have asked NEPA for it; we understand that the first stage is a pilot and they have received approval from NEPA for the pilot so NEPA must know what is the precise process and then once we know how these rare earth are to be taken out of the red mud then we will be in a better position to say whether there are any environmental impacts," McCaulay said.
In the meantime, Dr Everton H Flemmings, global expert policy advisor and renewable energy management strategist, last week warned that "more mining of rare earth metals will mean more environmental degradation and human health hazards".
According to Dr Flemmings, all rare earth metals contain radioactive elements such as uranium and thorium, which can pollute air, water, soil and groundwater. He said metals such as arsenic, barium, copper, aluminium, lead and beryllium may be discharged into the air or water during mining and can be toxic to human health.
Quoting information from the Chinese Society of Rare Earths, Dr Flemmings said it was estimated that the refinement of one ton of rare earth metals results in 75 cubic metres of acidic wastewater and one ton of radioactive residue.
He said he was "also expressing hope that a detailed analysis and investigation be carried out in accordance with this proposal by the minister".
Nippon Light Metal in September last year entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Jamaica Bauxite Institute for the establishment of the pilot project to determine the scope of the commercial project.
Tuesday, Paulwell said Nippon Light Metal's ultimate objective is to extract some 1,500 metric tons per annum. He said the pilot plant study will seek to specifically map the potential impact on land, water and air and the effect of neutralising the by-products of rare earth elements extraction.
The energy minister said rare earth elements or lanthanides, are extremely valuable elements which require advanced technology for their extraction so as to realise their commercial value.
The commodity that will be extracted is currently being traded at rates up to US $3,500 per kilogram.