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Your Smartphone's Dirty, Radioactive Secret

The rare earths inside microcomputers make our lives easier. But just how toxic are the guts of your smartphone?

Most of the 12 rare-earth experts I've spoken to say it's technically possible for Lynas to scrub its waste of all the toxic elements—acids, radioactive substances, and corrosive tailings. But not one has seen sufficient explanation—from either Lynas or Malaysian officials—of exactly how it will do this.

When I ask Lynas if it has plans for a permanent waste storage facility, I receive no response. When I ask how the plant will treat its liquids for release into the river, or the radioactive solids it aims to recycle into construction materials, spokesman Alan Jury declines to provide answers and instead refers me to the International Atomic Energy Agency's review of the plant.

I track down an engineer who worked on the Kuantan plant; he agrees to speak with me if given anonymity. Early on in the construction process, the engineer says, his team noticed serious flaws, including moisture seeps and cracks, in the 22 waste tanks the company was building. The problems led AkzoNobel, a Dutch company that Lynas had contracted to create the linings for the tanks, to pull out of the project, a story that the New York Times broke early this year. When I asked about the incident, an AkzoNobel spokeswoman wrote, "Due to changes in the Project specification, AkzoNobel would only recommend the use of its linings on the Project subject to the successful results of longer-term testing. That testing could not be completed within the project timescale."

"My personal opinion is that the plant can operate safely," the engineer tells me, "providing that i's effectively engineered." So far, though, he isn't convinced it is.

"I don't see the waste as impossible to manage, but you can't do it in secret, and you can't do it without good numbers," agrees Gavin Mudd, a senior lecturer of civil engineering at Australia's Monash University. "If Lynas is so confident in its methods, then it should have no problem being transparent."

Lynas spokesman Jury says that the change of contractors was a "commercial decision" and assures me that the new one, Trepax Innovation, is lining the tanks "to meet the international industry standard."

I attend a press conference with Raja Dato' Abdul Aziz bin Raja Adnan, the head of Malaysia's Atomic Energy Licensing Board, the body that subsequently granted Lynas a license to operate. I ask Aziz, who never seems to break a sweat or lose his grin as reporters pelt him with pointed questions, whether the board has looked into the plant flaws. Aziz responds that the plant has been inspected by a registered engineer. When I ask for the engineer's name, Aziz declines to give it. Why wasn't the report available to the public? I ask.

"Because it's Lynas' document," says Aziz.

So it was Lynas that looked into the allegations made by the Dutch contractor? He demurs, so I ask again who inspected the plant.

"I looked into the allegations," he says.

"You personally looked into them?"

"We looked into them."

"So then why can't you tell me the name of the engineer who inspected the building for the safety flaws?"

"That's for you to find out."

Right. When I later ask Jury about the alleged inspection report, he says he doesn't have it.

On the day that I leave Malaysia, a group of Kuantan residents files suit against Lynas and the licensing board, alleging in part that the board had a conflict of interest when it made a deal to receive 0.05 percent of the plant's revenue for "radiation research." When the news site Malaysian Insider asks Aziz about the suit, he responds, "I don't know anything about it."
 

DOES MY PHONE HAVE TO HAVE such a toxic footprint? Not if manufacturers—and consumers—are prepared to spend more. In the shadow of the Clark mountain range in California's Mojave Desert, about an hour outside of Las Vegas, is the Mountain Pass Mine, America's only major rare-earth mine and refinery. Owned by a company called Molycorp, it opened in 1952 and for decades produced europium, crucial for making color TVs. But in the late '90s, its wastewater pipes burst, and California shut the plant down; cleanup is still ongoing.

Then, in 2007, Molycorp executives decided to try to get the plant up and running again. The incentive was becoming too great. At the time, China was producing about 97 percent of the global supply of rare earths. But in 2010 it cut exports by 35 percent in order to keep the valuable metals for its own manufacturers. Prices rose and, fearing a shortage, members of Congress introduced a bill that would kick-start a domestic rare-earth renaissance by handing out federal subsidies. In March 2012, the United States, European Union, and Japan filed a formal complaint with the World Trade Organization over China's manipulation of the rare-earth market.

By then engineers had developed several major improvements to refining methods. Molycorp's new facility uses hydrochloric acid to remove thorium earlier in the process, when it is still in a solid state. Thorium and other waste solids are mixed into a cementlike substance, which workers spread out in layers over a 100-acre pit lined with high-density polyethylene.

Molycorp isn't perfect. That state-of-the-art tailings field is only permitted for 30 years; after that, a new pit would need to be built. The facility uses about half the water that the old plant used, but its energy demands are seven times greater. What's more, officials are tight-lipped about how much ore Molycorp ships to a refinery in Estonia, and about the methods used at its two Chinese refineries.

"Unless the consumers demand that China and others do things in an environmentally sound manner," one engineer and mining consultant told me, "they'll continue to do business as usual."

And even once Mountain Pass and other new US rare-earth plants are running at full capacity, we won't come close to producing all the rare earths that we consume. The United States contains only 10 percent of the world's known deposits. A recent Congressional Research Service report recommended that the US ensure reliable access to sources in countries like China, where rare earths are more abundant or—more to the point—cheaper to extract and refine. "Unless the consumers (industry or end buyers or both) demand that China and others do things in an environmentally sound manner," Jim Kuipers, a Montana-based engineer and mining consultant, wrote me, "they'll continue to do business as usual."

Could recycling help? After all, Americans are buying ever more personal electronics, but only 24 states require manufacturers to pay for e-waste recycling, which means only 25 percent of electronics of any kind (and 11 percent of phones and other mobile devices) are ever even collected. What programs do exist often amount to shipping old phones and TVs to Chinese villages, where they are broken up and bathed in acid to remove gold and silver—resulting in terrible lead and dioxin pollution. Upshot: Though rare earths are recyclable, only 1 percent currently are. A bit of good news: Sick of being buffeted by China's export policies and eager to go green, Japan's major car companies recently began recycling the rare earths in their hybrids' batteries. Get on it, Detroit.
 

ONE NIGHT TOWARD THE END of my visit to Kuantan, I'm lying in bed in a hostel in the middle of a dark neighborhood. I've been told that I'm the only guest tonight, and the hostel's owner lives on the other side of town. In the middle of the night, I awake to the sound of men's voices yelling outside my room in Mandarin. The front door slams. I sit up in bed, heart pounding. The yelling doesn't stop, and I'm becoming increasingly panicked. Something crashes, and that's it: I grab my phone, call Tan, and text a friend back in the States: "Don't freak out, I'm fine, but can you look up how to make an emergency call in Malaysia just in case?" She quickly texts back, and I feel immediately better. A little while later, the hostel owner, whom Tan called, arrives. "No scared, la!" he assures me. (Malaysians often use "la" at the end of sentences for oomph.) They are just last-minute guests, tea merchants who were out partying. Very drunk but totally harmless. Mortified, I text my friend back. Then I apologize over and over—in English and tortured Malay—to the tired owner.

As I try to fall back asleep, I realize that in this situation, my phone was my security blanket. In different circumstances, it could have been my lifeline.

A few days later Tan and I meet up with a group of anti-Lynas activists, including a chatty local man named Chow Kok Chew. He explains that he moved to the area 30 years ago—from Bukit Merah. "Every day when I went to work, I saw awful smoke," he says. "There were a lot of factories, but none had as much smoke as Asian Rare Earth." It was hard, he says, to start a new life here on the east coast, hundreds of miles away from his hometown. But Chow built a successful career as a construction supervisor and raised three children here. Now it feels like home.

So if the plant gets built, I ask him, will he move yet again? He shakes his head. "I am old." Still, he has been spending most of his spare time reading up about the plant—and encouraging his friends to do the same. Next month, Chow and his friends plan to shave their heads in protest. "If I don't do something," he says, "I'm worried that my grandson will say, 'Grandfather, the first time you kept quiet. The second time you kept quiet, too. Why?'"

Additional reporting by Azeen Ghorayshi. Support for this story was provided by grants from the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Puffin Foundation Investigative Journalism Project. Read Kiera Butler's dispatches from Malaysia here.

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