Planet Earth Weekly

Climate Change and Renewable Energy: Saving Our Planet for Future Generations

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Greenland: Mining of Uranium and Rare Earth Metals


Greenland: The long term effects of mining in Greenland could be devastating to the environment and the economy.(Photo credit: Beechwood Photography)

Uranium waste from mining contains radioactive decay products which have the potential to effect surface, ground water, soil, and air quality in Greenland for thousands of years.

By Lin Smith

Greenland’s Ice Sheet
November 1o, 2013—Greenland is a semi-autonomous part of the Kingdom of Denmark. It is located between the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans. Greenland’s ice sheet is approximately 660,000 sq. miles, which is about 80% of its surface, second only to the Antarctic Ice Sheet. Its thickness averages more than one mile. The current ice sheet in Greenland is approximately 110,000 years old and there has been a continuous ice sheet for over 18 million years. Greenland’s ice sheet contains valuable records and, according to Wikipedia, the data collected from the ice sheet is “greater than in any other natural recorder of the climate, such as tree rings or sediment layers.” But according to the satellite monitoring this ice sheet since the 1970’s, it has been steadily growing thinner. As stated in last week’s post by John J. Hidore, “As a result of the warmer temperatures, the ice has been thawing further from shore and the remaining perennial ice pack has been getting thinner. In some areas it is only half as thick as it was a few decades ago.” This melting of the ice sheet allows for passage of freighters, without ice breaker ships, to places that were previously inaccessible.

Reducing Dependency on Denmark
Currently, more than half of Greenland’s revenues come from Denmark, but Greenland’s goal is to reduce dependency on Denmark’s subsidies. Greenland’s government has recently voted to allow mining of uranium, which has had a 25 year ban. Uranium is often found mixed with rare earth metals, therefore, requiring the  ban to be lifted on both rare earths metals and uranium. Also, there is a growing demand for rare earth metals, as they are used in many every day devices such as cell phones, rechargeable batteries, DVDs, computers, and fluorescent lighting. Greenland’s government approved the end of the uranium ban recently in a 15 to 14 vote, arguing with Denmark that “its autonomy from Denmark will let Greenland export uranium.”  Denmark has said Greenland can decide only on excavation of uranium, not on its exportation. Greenland Minerals, according to the Wall Street Journal, is “developing an $810 million rare-earths and uranium project that it hopes will produce enough uranium and zinc to subsidize mining rare earth metals at a lower cost than in China, the world’s largest producer.”

Environmental Effects of Mining
China is currently the world supplier of rare earths but in 2013 China put a cap on the production of rare earths stating that overmining has created massive damage to their environment and China “no longer wants to pay the environmental costs of supplying the vast bulk of the world’s rare earths,” as reported by David Stanway. There has been little or no regulation of the mining of rare earth metals in China, leading to many environmental disasters. For example, in Northern China near the Mongolian border radioactive water from a mine is leaking into the Yellow River, which is a major source of drinking water and in south-central China, there are a large number of illegal rare earth strip mines. In southeast China, runoff from rare earth mines are destroying rice fields and water sources.

With the mining of uranium comes radioactive decay products, which, as with the rare earth metals, have the potential to affect the quality of surface and ground water, soil, and air. Tailings from mining uranium can contaminate a site for thousands of years according the article, “Potential Environmental Effects of Uranium Mining, Processing, and Reclamation” published by the National Academies Press. This article also states that “limited data exists to confirm the long-term effectiveness of uranium tailings’ management facilities that have been designed and constructed according to our modern best practices.”

Long Term Effects of Uranium 
Forty-eight NGOs (nongovernment organizations), including Greenpeace, have signed a petition to stop mining in Greenland. The reasons they have listed include: 1.There will be chemical pollution from radioactive tailings. 2.There is no safe technology to store radioactive residues. 3.The Arctic environment is vulnerable to pollution, as it is extremely slow to recover due to the cold temperatures which slow down the chemical breakdown of the contaminants. 4.Up to 85% of the radioactivity from uranium mining will remain in the tailings and leakage is highly possible, spreading the radioactive materials throughout the pristine environment. 5. As in the mining of rare earth metals in China, leakage of radiation may accumulate in the food chain, thus contaminating fish and causing genetic damage to life in the Arctic. 6. Contamination could eliminate the fishing industry of Greenland.

Greenland Minerals and Energy LTD is licensed to mine in Greenland and according to the NGO organizations, “Greenland Minerals does not have sufficient economic resources to clean up ecological damage done to the region from the millions of tons of radioactive waste, nor does Greenland itself have the resources to restore the damage.”

And finally,  responsible nations and citizens of the world need to ask themselves, “What would be the long term cost of opening Greenland to the mining of uranium and rare earth metals?” The NGO organizations summarize it well, “The long term economic damage could far exceed any compensation from jobs or short term economic success!”


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Global Population Growth

World population

The Impact of Population Growth

By John J. Hidore

Estimates of Early Population Growth

October 19, 2013—Global population is growing faster than at any time in history. We are now adding about 227,000 people per day to the planet. This adds 85,000,000 people to the planet each year. That annual increase is the same as adding the population of the United States to the planet every four years. What is astonishing in the growth data is how fast the rate of growth has been increasing. It took hundreds of thousands of years for the first billion to be reached in about 1800. The time it has taken for adding each billion has dropped rapidly. The last billion was added in just 12 years from 1999 to 2011. At the beginning of 2013 global population growth stood at a little over seven billion. The key element in driving population growth is changing technology which has increased the global food supply.

Some estimates of early human population size:
125,000                1 million years ago
1-5 million            11,000 B.C
50 million                3,000 B.C
0.5 billion                1,500 A.D.

Adding the billions:
1 billion    1800    200,000 to a million years
2 billion     1930   130 years
3 billion     1960     30 years
4 billion     1974     14 years
5 billion     1987     13 years
6 billion     1999      12 years
7 Billion     2011      12 years
The human population reached its highest annual growth rate of about 2 percent per year, in the early 1970’s. The growth rate in 2012 was around 1.2 %. While the rate has dropped the absolute number of humans added to the planet each year continues to be greater than in the past.

Population Growth in Asia

Today the fastest-growing countries are the developing countries. Many of the nations with the highest growth rates are in Africa and southwest Asia. China has the largest population of any country. However, India, which has a smaller population than China but has a higher growth rate, is adding 1/3 more people each year than is China. The UN projects India to surpass China as the most populous country in the world about 2028. At that time both countries will have a population of about 1.45 billion. China’s population will begin to stabilize in 2028 and India will continue to grow for some time. Most of the growth will be in developing countries, with more than half in Africa. The population in Sub-Saharan Africa is projected to double from the 2010 population of 0.86 to 1.96 billion in 2050.

Impact Of Population Growth

The key element in the future relationship between the human species and the global environment is the continued rapid growth of the human population. In 1968, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich published the book The Population Bomb. At the time he wrote the book the human population was 3.5 billion. It has more than doubled since.
All data indications are that the population will continue to grow. How much it will grow can only be estimated and the estimates from different organizations vary. This year, 2013, the United Nations has forecasted a global population growth of 8.1 billion by 2025 and 9.6 billion for 2050.
The next billion people added to the earth will want and expect food, clothing, shelter, and some means of employment. How are these needs to be met? There are already a billion people with some degree of malnutrition. Most of the population supports themselves from agriculture. All good, and even marginal, land is already occupied, and much productive land is being removed from agriculture due to erosion and general depletion. How are these agriculturalists going to find employment? These are critical issues!
The momentum for an increasing population seems to be difficult to change. Global business thrives on population growth. It seems the options are limited. Either the human species understands what is taking place and mandates a change, or these trends will continue until some unpredictable catastrophe eliminates a substantial portion of the people now living!

Recent reports:
United Nations. 2013. World Population Prospects

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Peabody Coal



By Lin Smith

April 14, 2013—The United States is using less coal, resulting in less CO2 emissions being released by the U.S., but to keep profits flowing, Peabody Energy is exporting their coal to other countries. Peabody Energy (previously Peabody Coal) is the largest private coal company in the U.S., and its exports to China and India are set to increase from 1 billion to 5 billion tons by 2015. Though Peabody has made a small effort to invest in the development of clean air technologies….it exports coal to over 23 countries worldwide, where coal environmental regulations aren’t as stringent as in the United States. Newsweek Magazine has ranked Peabody Coal the least eco-friendly company in the United States.

In April, protesters converged on a Peabody CEO meeting in St. Louis to protest environmental and worker contract issues saying, “Peabody attacks pensions, lands, and climate.” They also protested the impact on health, land, and water resources of the Black Mesa section of the Navajo/Hopi Reservations, where Peabody has strip mines. In the 1960′s, Peabody Coal contracted mineral and water rights on a section of the Navajo/Hopi Reservations called Black Mesa. The contract was negotiated by a lawyer, John Boyden, who claimed to represent the Hopi and Navajo people, BUT was, reportedly, on Peabody Coal Company’s payroll. The lease agreement was for 14 million tons of coal per year to provide electricity for southern California, Nevada, and central Arizona. Today, the water and air are polluted in the Black Mesa section of the Navajo/Hopi land. Following is part of a letter written January, 2013, by Navajo/Hopi elders to Peabody Executives, requesting a meeting: “The 46 year strip-mining on Black Mesa is devasating for our people. Our people are facing forced relocation because of Peabody Western Coal Co. The coal mine does not effectively extinguish coal fires to prevent the toxic gases from being emitted. The gaseous pollution endangers the health of our people….before Peabody, there were natural springs and wildlife. The natural springs are extinct now and the water is polluted. Black Mesa residents now face hauling water 30 or 40 miles to their homes and livestock….the prestine Navajo Aquifer is irreversibly damaged….the healing process can begin with Peabody Energy ceasing further coal strip mining and putting profits into solar and allowing the residents of Black Mesa to return to their way of life….the Black Mesa people have endured physical, emotional, and spiritual losses, the people struggle to survive, as the southwest cities benefit from the cheap resources of our land…tens of thousands of our people were forced to leave their land to make room for your mine, making this the biggest forced relocation of Native people since the Trail of Tears.”

Not only is Peabody Energy a polluter without a conscience, they have refused to honor their contract with their coal miners, many having poor health conditions, including Black Lung. Here’s what big corporations can get away with–Peabody has recently shifted some of their assets to a new dummy company, “Patriot Coal”, in order to keep from paying “legacy costs” to miners. “Legacy costs” are increased healthcare fees and other benefit-related costs payed to a companies’ workers and retirees. “Patriot Coal” (Peabody Coal) is now in federal court declaring bankruptcy, where they expect their debt of one billion dollars owed to their miners will be “forgiven”.

Jim Hayes, of the Sierra Club, writes, ” Peabody’s profits have increased in recent years, as it carries out more uncontrolled pollution mining and expands it’s trade worldwide, especially to China.” The only way fossil fuels will stop polluting our atmosphere is if they stay in the ground. It’s senseless for one country to make an effort to move towards renewable resources but move the culprit, coal, to countries with no regulations. It’s all the same world, and our atmosphere doesn’t know the difference. The pollution is only entering the atmosphere from a different location on our planet.

As John Prine sang in his song, Paradise, “Then the coal company came, with the world’s largest shovel, and they tortured the timber and stripped all the land. Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken, then they wrote it all down as the progress of man….Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.”

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