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Mines Linked to Child Labor Are Thriving in Rush for Car Batteries (bloomberg.com) 140

Metal vital to many electric vehicles has tripled in 18 months. From a report: The appetite for electric cars is driving a boom in small-scale cobalt production in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where some mines have been found to be dangerous and employ child labor. Production from so-called artisanal mines probably rose by at least half last year, according to the estimates of officials at three of the biggest international suppliers of the metal, who asked not to be named because they're not authorized to speak on the matter. State-owned miner Gecamines estimates artisanal output accounted for as much as a quarter of the country's total production in 2017. That's a concern for carmakers from Volkswagen to Tesla, who are seeking to secure long-term supplies of the battery ingredient but don't want to be enmeshed in a scandal about unethical mining practices.

Tech giants including Apple and Microsoft endured bad publicity after a 2016 Amnesty International report said children were being sent down some Congolese mines to dig for cobalt destined for their gadgets. Pit and tunnel collapses killed dozens of workers in 2015, the advocacy group said. Cobalt has tripled in value in the last 18 months as the rise of electric vehicles intensifies competition for scarce resources. Two-thirds of the world's supply comes from Congo, the second-poorest nation. The boom in the metal, currently trading above $80,000 a metric ton, has triggered more mining in the cobalt-rich Katanga region, where sprawling hand-dug mines dot the landscape, and searching for ore is as commonplace as farming.

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Mines Linked to Child Labor Are Thriving in Rush for Car Batteries

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  • Conflict-Free Batteries for Everyone!
    • by sycodon ( 149926 )

      Hey, at least children won't be dying of Global Warming, right?

      • by e3m4n ( 947977 )

        I wonder what percentage of the cobalt in that mine is Cobalt-60. That's some particularly nasty shit with a 7.8MeV photon decay and a half-life of 5.27 years. They probably will die of cancer much faster than global climate consequences.

        • by Waffle Iron ( 339739 ) on Tuesday February 20, 2018 @12:43PM (#56157656)

          I wonder what percentage of the cobalt in that mine is Cobalt-60.

          Exactly 0%, since cobalt-60 doesn't occur in nature.

          • I wonder what percentage of the cobalt in that mine is Cobalt-60.

            Exactly 0%, since cobalt-60 doesn't occur in nature.

            What about Cobalt-Thorium-G?

            • They'll be safe. They're already deep in the mines.
            • That too contains zero Cobalt-60. Unless someone has recently introduced a large neutron flux to it.

              I suspected it was something out of fiction, but had to trawl a bit to see it's a line from 'Dr Strangelove'. I suspect there was some vaguely scientific thinking going on in the screen writers mind about putting a neutron sourcing material into the mix. I think beryllium would probably have been better than thorium, as used in modern electrical neutron generators. But hey - I'll give the screenwriter some k

          • by Kaenneth ( 82978 )

            probably like 0.00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000001% at least.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          I wonder what percentage of the cobalt in that mine is Cobalt-60. That's some particularly nasty shit with a 7.8MeV photon decay and a half-life of 5.27 years. They probably will die of cancer much faster than global climate consequences.

          Wow, you started the paragraph admitting you don't know shit, and yet by the end you've concluded the horrible death of the children.

          • by e3m4n ( 947977 )

            you assume that there were no outside influences. How much iron exists near the cobalt? Iron-59 absorbing a neutron becomes iron-60 which then beta-minus decays (proton turns into a neutron) into cobalt-60. This happens all the time in nuclear plants. While its unlikely they are using nuclear power in the mine, the possibility of other radiological surveying existing is still possible. Most of those surveys use radioactive source material to expose materials to testing. Even a gamma-emitter could in turn c

        • The stuff has been down there for millions if not billions of life. Even if the star stuff was originally Cobalt-60, it's been more than 5 years.

          Unless you're a creationist of course, then Chernobyl wouldn't even measure against the background radiation from all the elements that haven't decayed yet.

          • by e3m4n ( 947977 )

            i guess you do not fully undestand half-life. Half-life is how long it takes for half of it to decay, not all of it. It takes 5 half-lives to to 'effectively' decay away. However, other nuclides decay up and down the chart all the time... neutron decay, proton->neutron decay, neutron->proton decay, etc. Then there are proton-> neutron etc. So there are plenty of things that can keep things around. Uranium-235 has a half-life of 700 million years, but the earth is 4.5 billion years old, yet uranium-

            • I am sure they conduct radiological surveys of these mines.

              Which part of "artesanal mining" did you not understand? The most technologically advanced part of the mining process is likely to be either the diesel engine in the truck hauling rock and dumping it into the crusher, or the sieves used by the workers to separate dense minerals from less dense minerals.

              OK, I'm a geologist so this question might mean more to me than it does to you, but what useful information would you get from a "radiological surve

        • None, since with a ~5 year halflife, and billions of years, any meaningful amount of Cobalt-60 decayed *long* ago.
      • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Tuesday February 20, 2018 @12:44PM (#56157674)

        Congo is sliding back into civil war. The last war there killed more than 4 million people, and was the world's deadliest conflict since WW2. Nearly all the casualties were civilians.

        In the last few weeks, fighting has flared up along the eastern border with Uganda and Rwanda. Thousands have died. The world has ignored it.

        Yet suddenly the media starts pretending to give a crap about the Congolese because they can put "Apple" and "Tesla" in the headline.

        • then what does that say about the people consuming that media in the developed world. After all, the media publishes what folks want.
          • the media publishes what folks want...

            Not where I live.

            We have two major news publishers, and they have absolutely no clue about what their customers want, and as a result are losing those customers hand over fist.
            At the moment they are trying desperately to merge, as if that will solve their competence problems, but the regulators have told them to go jump in a lake, which is nice.

        • The last war there killed more than 4 million people, and was the world's deadliest conflict since WW2.

          Thought Rwanda was 6mil.

      • Hey, at least children won't be dying of Global Warming, right?

        Considering NOAA just got caught fudging the numbers again, I seriously doubt that was ever a real concern. That said, all-electric vehicles are definitely nicer because the smell of combustion engines is unpleasant and we're more or less fucked in the event of any oil supply disruption (for example, most of the oil we use in the US is refined in the southeastern US between a handful of refineries, if those were destroyed for whatever reason the whole system would collapse and even hording gas wouldn't do

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Pay no attention to all this mining, its OK. This is for environmentally wonderful EVs.

      • Real environmentalist understand that everything comes at a trade off. Decisions of course of actions needs to be address the biggest overall harming problem, compared to the smaller over all ones.

        Does mining have an environmental impact: Yes
        However the real questions are.... Is the Impact from mining less then the benefit from having EVs? Are there steps that can be taken to reduce the impact from mining? What are the costs and benefits from these steps?

        We want simple solutions to complex problems. Howev

        • by DarkOx ( 621550 )

          meanwhile on the east cost of the US the electric everything idots are carving up some of the last large areas of unbroken forest so they can put wind turbines on the top of ever Appalachian hill and run transmission lines back to wherever.

          Never mind the habitat destruction! Its less carbon!

          • Would those be the hills that have had their summits levelled by mountaintop removal coal mining?

          • ... put wind turbines on the top of ever Appalachian hill ...

            Really? EVERY hill? Or is it actually 0.001% of the hills, and you are just rounding up to 100%?

          • It's also fewer animals killed from pollution, so there's that.
        • by Anonymous Coward

          Trade offs are OK as long as its not nuclear. In which case we throw reason out the window and open the door in welcome of FUD.

          • I am fine with Nuclear in theory, however it is too politicized so we can't have the proper regulations in place. Because otherwise you are a Greedy businessman, or a Liberal Hippy.

        • by sycodon ( 149926 )

          Nice trade off....for you.

          • TFA presents ZERO evidence that the use of child labor has increased. Here is a complete list of the facts in TFA:

            1. The price of cobalt has gone up.

            That's it.

            All the rest is handwaving and conjecture. Sure, if the price has gone up, the incentive to mine has also gone up, which means more labor may be needed, which means more kids may be working in mines. But that is conjecture, not evidence, and not reporting any actual facts.

            • by sycodon ( 149926 )

              Still works out well for you, eh?

              What happened to all your bullshit about "externalized" costs?

      • by Rei ( 128717 ) on Tuesday February 20, 2018 @12:46PM (#56157686) Homepage

        Right. Cobalt, mainly produced today as a byproduct of copper and nickel mining, which gets virtually 100% recycled at end of life, is terrible, but everything that goes into gasoline cars and everything that they burn straight into the air we breathe comes from puppies and rainbows. No, there has never been exploitation over oil production, nosirree! Cobalt (16kg per long-range Tesla Model 3) is mined at quantities up to 1% in the ore, but hey let's forget that the precious metals in your spark plugs and catalytic converters is mined at ~1 part per million quantities. Let's ignore the fact that modern ICE drivetrains are a mix of high-alloy steel (nickel and chromium in particular) and alumium alloys, a lot more than 16kg of them in a typical car, and that these don't just magically pop out of thin air either (not like the steel itself does either). No, no, only batteries are evil! We must not forget this!

        Sometimes people will say, "But hey, the EV is heavier! That means it's more resource intensive." Have you checked EV weights lately? Model 3 SR is the same size as, and as fast as, a BMW 330i. Model 3 SR: 1609kg. BMW 330: 1588kg. There's a little more difference between the LR and the 340, but not that much.

        But even if we want to pretend that recycling doesn't exist, this is all dancing around the fact that the vast majority of the pollution of a vehicle accrues during its usage, not its production. The comparison isn't even close [pinimg.com]. And the higher the degree of mass production of EV components, the more efficient their production gets.

    • by Rei ( 128717 ) on Tuesday February 20, 2018 @12:32PM (#56157600) Homepage

      The three suppliers who spoke to Bloomberg estimated Congo’s artisanal output at 10,000 to 20,000 tons last year.

      Congo’s Ministry of Mines estimates 86,923 tons of cobalt was produced last year. There are no exact data on how much of that cobalt is produced at artisanal mines, but the figure is about 13,000 tons higher than the output reported by the country’s industrial operators and published by the chamber of mines this month.

      Two-thirds of the world’s supply comes from Congo

      Math: ((10000 + 20000) / 2) / (86923 / (2/3)) = 11,5% of the world supply from artisinal mines.

      Most artisinal mines are just villages digging their own land to try to get some extra income to lift themselves out of the country's crippling poverty (as the wealth from the big mines has failed to trickle down to ordinary people). But some percentage of artisinal mines will be abusive; call that fraction P. So P * 0,115 = will be the fraction of the global supply that is troublesome and needs to be dealt with. Dealing with it, however, is difficult when there's so much profit to be had by unscrupulous suppliers slipping artisinal cobalt into their supply streams.

      Of course, it's not present production that matters. It's future production. Where's that coming from? In the short term, there will be even more from the DRC - albeit in new large mines. Katanga [reuters.com] just reopened. 2018 production is anticipated at 11k tonnes per year, and 34k tonnes per year in 2019. Also, Metalkol [bloomberg.com] will start production late this year, ramping up to 14k tonnes per year by 2019.

      In the longer term, however production looks to be moving away from the DRC. While cobalt deposits are crazy-abundant in the DRC (cobalt prices could fall to near zero and they'd still produce it as a byproduct of their copper production), today's prices support production all over the world. Eg., in Australia the Skoni project [reuters.com] will start in the 2020s, while among the many plays in Canada, First Cobalt is the most interest (near the aptly named town of Cobalt). But it's not just new mines; a lot will be from adding secondary recovery streams to existing mines, like the $500M Vale nickel mine at Voisey’s Bay. Cobalt can be found pretty much everywhere that nickel and copper can be found , but most mines haven't bothered recovering it because of how cheaply it's been coming out of the DRC. But while that will meet short-term demand, the long term is to focus more on mining "cobalt for cobalt's sake", rather than simply as a byproduct. And that'll be the case until the supply curve catches up with the demand curve and prices slack off.

      Even mines right "next door" to the Tesla Gigafactory, like Lovelock mine [nevadasunrise.ca] in Nevada, may be opening in a couple years. It's a boom time for the cobalt market.

      • That's the case for a lot of these so called "rare earth metals" as well. They aren't particularly rare, but mining them can sometimes be a nasty business and isn't easy to do profitably, especially in nations that actually enforce environmental regulations. But if demand drives up prices, more mines are bound to be reopened.
    • Let's hope not. [nytimes.com]
  • they can move to foxcon Congo with the non kids working the mine.

  • I wonder how much of BIG FAT NOTHING will Muskie do about this?
  • by gweihir ( 88907 ) on Tuesday February 20, 2018 @12:25PM (#56157572)

    Don't get me wrong, children working in mines is horrible. However, they are working there because the alternatives are worse. Closing down these mines or sacking the children will not make their situation better, it will make it massively worse.

    Of course, that is too complex a situation for the media and for many people. Hence they demand that child labor be stopped and are thereby contributing to the evil.

    • by Kokuyo ( 549451 ) on Tuesday February 20, 2018 @12:39PM (#56157640) Journal

      Same thing with clothing production. If child labor, child prostitution and death are the only three options, then the child labor is suddenly looking pretty darn good.

      Of course shame on all of us that there are still places on the planet where those are the only options...

      • Of course shame on all of us that there are still places on the planet where those are the only options...

        I can't control where, when, and how many babies people have.

      • Who are you to judge their cultural standards? You aren't Congolese so how dare you comment anyways. SO racist!

        Personally I'm just glad the overwhelming threat of "cultural appropriation" accusations from China and the Congo keeps the US from employing children in mines. Do you have any idea how expensive medical coverage is for a 7 year old working in a mine? I have three children. Talk about cutting into my Starbucks budget! Ugh! /sarcasm

    • by fluffernutter ( 1411889 ) on Tuesday February 20, 2018 @12:47PM (#56157700)
      I think people are demanding that American companies not profit from child labor. No it isn't our job to make the situation better for these people but we don't have to benefit from it either. If you really want to help these people, then you need do something very different than paying their masters.
    • Don't get me wrong, children working in mines is horrible. However, they are working there because the alternatives are worse. Closing down these mines or sacking the children will not make their situation better, it will make it massively worse.

      Of course, that is too complex a situation for the media and for many people. Hence they demand that child labor be stopped and are thereby contributing to the evil.

      "Pit and tunnel collapses killed dozens of workers in 2015..."

      Employing children is not the main issue. Employing children in dangerous fucking jobs is the issue that gets everyone fired up.

      Is every alternative truly worse?

      Are there no jobs that could be created within this booming cobalt mining industry to create safer working conditions and prevent starvation?

    • False dichotomy (Score:2, Insightful)

      by rsilvergun ( 571051 )
      This isn't a complex situation. This isn't the 1800s let alone the 1600s. There is zero reason these kids are being sent to the mines. The alternatives are worse because the foreign policy of the leading nations makes it worse. You're just telling yourself (and everyone else) this clap trap to make yourself feel better about not solving the problem.

      It comes down to this quote [google.com]
      • Since America is not a Christian nation I wonder what country Mr. Colbert is referring to. Just where the hell he was when he originally stated this? Is the Congo a Christian nation? Was he there when he said this? If so that quote might make finally make some damn sense.

        If not, we are back at square one: You and Colbert both having no understanding of the US government, Christians, and of the Bible.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Bullshit. it's called exploitation. Children are cheaper than adults. Child labor in any form is wrong. Period.

    • Closing down these mines or sacking the children

      You're missing the non-evil option: the mine could fire the children, hire their parents and pay them enough to feed their family. You know, like people do in civilized society.
      This would make the cobalt more expensive, but so what? There's a few grams of cobalt in a phone battery, you're not even going to notice a doubling in the price of cobalt.

    • Or, hear me out, have their parents work there so the kids do not have to. Yes, that would mean an increase in price.
      But many would rather have chrap whatever for whatever the cost.

    • Don't get me wrong, children working in mines is horrible. However, they are working there because the alternatives cost more money.

      FTFY. Let's not get in the trap of thinking that African warlords are suffering a sudden bout of altruism.

    • by Cederic ( 9623 )

      However, they are working there because the alternatives are worse.

      What, them and their families getting butchered by the warlords that profit from this?

      Reducing demand will reduce the exploitation, and yes, it is exploitation.

  • With oil, the cost is the greenhouse gas effect, smog, and non-GHG emissions that are bad for breathing.

    With battery electric vehicles, the batteries and the source of power are the issue. And the only reason you need SO MANY batteries is because the batteries are just a storage vessel. There's no on-board power generation.

    With hydrogen, there's potential, but it's still complex. Hydrolyzers take up a bunch of power to split H2O and then require high-pressure containment to hold the hydrogen. Sure, y
    • sun is free, wind is free, thus both distilled water and hydrolysis are free. The cost of PV panels or wind turbines is just what every investment needs, capital for the infrastructure.
      someone might say, and what about land or mountains or sea.
      Welp, deserts, sea and mountain peaks are uninhabited and flora/fauna free (for the sea I mean the surface, for the mountains I mean the naked peaks, for desert..ooh come on)
      The real question is, why doesn't anyone do it?
      Well biodiesel is a thing and there is a s
  • by foxalopex ( 522681 ) on Tuesday February 20, 2018 @01:19PM (#56157922)

    Consumers today unfortunately don't see the true cost of what all their products are. If they did, I sometimes wonder how many things we could stomach. It also seems that unfortunately when something seems "too good to be true" it turns out that somewhere someone paid the price either in environmental damage, or in sheer human lives. I'm not really sure what the ultimate solution is, as consumers the best we can do is to try to be aware of how things are made / built and pick those which least destroy our environment and lives. But that's easier said than done. CFCs for instance were deemed completely safe and they are. Who could have discovered that once it got high in our atmosphere it would destroy ozone which would lead to an increase in deadly skin cancers.

  • by PPH ( 736903 ) on Tuesday February 20, 2018 @01:48PM (#56158136)

    ... to dig faster. I want to go out for a cruise in my Tesla.

  • Along with equipment from the Boring Co. to mine asteroids for cobalt. Musk and Co. can secure the high ground like Europeans did with the New World back in the days. Don't need to feel guilty exploiting children, don't need the Fifth Fleet to keep the sea lanes open (oh, maybe need the Space Command to thwart off space pirates).
  • It's much easier to mine that.

  • Shouldn't mine labor be the FIRST occupation to be completely replaced by automation? Robots don't steal, robots never need to come back up to the surface, robots can work in 200 degree heat, and people don't get too upset when a mine roof collapses on a bunch of robots. (They get even less upset when a mine collapses on a bunch of lawyers, but there are some things even a lawyer won't do.)

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