Mining & Sustainability: In Your Phone, In Their Air

battery
MASHAN, CHINA – MAY 28 A graphite worker walks across the Jin Yang graphite factory in the town of Mashan, China on May 28, 2016. Workers have very little safety equipment at many of the graphite factories. The northeastern province of Heilongjiang is rich in graphite and there are numerous mines and factories in the region. Locals who live in proximity to the factories complain of contaminated air and water affecting their crops and health. The graphite, which is purchased by Samsung and LG Chem, is a key ingredient in lithium batteries for mobile phones and electric cars. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

A trace of graphite is in consumer tech. In these Chinese villages, it’s everywhere.

At night, the pollution around the village has an otherworldly, almost fairy-tale quality.

“The air sparkles,” said Zhang Tuling, a farmer in a village in far northeastern China. “When any bit of light hits the particles, they shine.”

By daylight, the particles are visible as a lustrous gray dust that settles on everything. It stunts the crops it blankets, begrimes laundry hung outside to dry and leaves grit on food. The village’s well water has become undrinkable, too.

Beside the family home is a plot that once grew saplings, but the trees died once the factory began operating, said Zhang’s husband, Yu Yuan.

“This is what we live with,” Zhang said, slowly waving an arm at the stumps.

Zhang and Yu live near a factory that produces graphite, a glittery substance that, while best known for filling pencils, has become an indispensable resource in the new millennium. It is an ingredient in lithium-ion batteries.

Smaller and more powerful than their predecessors, lithium batteries power smartphones and laptop computers and appear destined to become even more essential as companies make much larger ones to power electric cars.

The companies making those products promote the bright futuristic possibilities of the “clean” technology. But virtually all such batteries use graphite, and its cheap production in China, often under lax environmental controls, produces old-fashioned industrial pollution.

After leaving these Chinese mines and refiners, much of the graphite is sold to Samsung SDI, LG Chem and Panasonic — the three largest manufacturers of lithium-ion batteries. Those companies supply batteries to major consumer companies such as Samsung, LG, General Motors and Toyota.

Apple products use batteries made by those companies, too — specifically from Samsung SDI and LG Chem. But Fred Sainz, an Apple spokesman, said that for current products, the company has switched to synthetic graphite, which is not mined. The company declined to say when it made the change to rely exclusively on synthetic graphite.

Some provinces in China sought to crack down on the polluters, and three years ago they issued fines to several graphite companies.

But the pollution continues. Villagers said the cleanup efforts failed — they were short-lived or otherwise inadequate — because local authorities are closely allied with company officials and unwilling to acknowledge the gravity of the environmental trouble.

Complaints about the pollution are often met with intimidation. People living near graphite plants frequently appeared fearful of pressing their grievances.

“Here he comes,” whispered one older woman in Mashan, near the city of Jixi in northeastern China, turning her back and pointing furtively at a village official who was approaching. She and her husband had been talking to a reporter about long-standing graphite pollution in her neighborhood. While some talked freely, there were people in all of the five areas with graphite plants who, like this couple, were reluctant to speak on the record.

In addition, plant managers and party officials sometimes sternly discouraged journalists from speaking with villagers. At three of the villages, the taxi carrying Post journalists was followed.

Whatever the obstacles, the villagers who would talk offered remarkably consistent accounts of the pollution. The graphite, they typically said with disgust, makes everything mai tai, a regional expression meaning dirty.

Since the graphite factory opened in Zhang’s village about five years ago, the graphite has become more than a nuisance. The couple live near Jixi, a city less than 50 miles from the Russian border. The dust has covered their corn crop, so much so that walking by a row of cornstalks leaves their faces blackened. And it seems impossible to keep it out of the house — at the dinner table, it often leaves them chewing the particles in their teeth.

They worry, too, about the health consequences, especially of breathing it in. Inhaling particulate matter can cause an array of health troubles, according to health experts, including heart attacks and respiratory ailments.

But it’s not just the air. The graphite plant discharges pollutants into local waters, Zhang and Yu said — a nightly event that they can detect by smell: The discharges leave a chemical odor that irritates their noses and throats. Those emissions have not only made their water undrinkable, they said, but also kept the local river from freezing in winter. They also think the discharge poisoned the poplar trees they were growing for lumber outside their home, just beyond their coops for ducks and geese and chickens.(Source: The Washington Post)

JIDONG, CHINA - MAY 30 Yu Yuan, left, and his wife Zhang Tuling stand in what is left of their tree orchard in Jidong, China on May 30, 2016. Yuan and Tuling grew poplar trees on their small farm and earned income from selling the wood. They say that after an Aoyu graphite plant opened down the street, their trees died. They cite contaminated water and air as being the cause. Graphite is big business in Heilongjiang province and factories pepper the region surrounding the city of Jixi. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
JIDONG, CHINA - MAY 30 Zhang Tuling wipes her brow in the family's kitchen in Jidong, China on May 30, 2016. Tuling and her husband grew trees on their small farm and earned income from selling the wood. They say that after an Aoyu graphite plant opened down the street from their home their trees died. They cite contaminated water and air as being the cause. Graphite is big business in Heilongjiang province and factories pepper the region surrounding the city of Jixi. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s