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US EPA Report: Rare Earth Elements: A Review of Production, Processing, Recycling, and Associated Environmental Issues

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Rare Earth Elements: A Review of Production, Processing, Recycling, and Associated Environmental Issues

Abstract

Rare earth elements (REEs) are a group of 15 chemical elements in the periodic table, specifically the lanthanides. Two other elements, scandium and yttrium, have a similar physiochemistry to the lanthanides, are commonly found in the same mineral assemblages, and are often referred to as REEs. REEs have not been mined in the United States for about 20 years, and prior to that time, the amount of mining was minimal compared to coal and hard rock mining. The increased use of REEs in magnets, modern electronics and in a variety of commercial products has led to a shortage of REEs for production purposes. Currently, REEs are being disposed in large quantities rather than being recovered and reused.

The purpose of this report is to serve as a technical information resource to policy makers and other stakeholders who are concerned with the potential environmental and health effects and impacts that can be identified across the REE supply chain. RTI conducted a search of the technical literature and other Internet sources related to each segment of the supply chain, including recent initiatives of U.S. government agencies that document issues associated with REE production, processing, manufacturing, end uses, recycling, and health/ecological effects. Information contained in this report also draws upon past domestic and international experience, as appropriate.

Compared to coal and other hardrock mining, the scope of REE mining has always been very small, both in the U.S. and globally. No major REE mining operations have been conducted in the U.S. since 1995. Mining and processing activities have the potential to create a number of environmental risks to human health and the environment. The severity of these risks is highly variable between mine and mine plant operations. The contaminants of concern will vary depending on the REEmineral ore, the toxicity of the contaminants from the waste rock, ore stockpiles, and process waste streams. The mobility of contaminants will be controlled by the characteristics of the geologic, hydrologic, and hydrogeologic environments where the mine is located, along with the characteristics of the mining process and waste handling methods.

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