Papan: Radioactive waste nightmare still not over

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The lure of a lucrative business should NEVER be at the expense of the health of the rakyat, says S H Tan We must learn the lessons from Papan.
 
The letter below was published in The Star, 16 June 2010 letters section. Dr Jayabalan was actively involved in the Asian Rare Earth Sdn Bhd (ARE) issue 27 years ago in Bukit Merah, a Chinese New Village in Perak.
 
Some of you may be too young to remember and some may have forgotten this issue which happened in the early 80’s. A few of the activists were arrested under ISA during Ops Lallang. Their crime…protesting against a radioactive dumpsite in their own backyard.
 
Below are some points of the ARE issue to refresh our memory:
 
– blood tests of children in the area found that two thirds have high lead in their blood
– 8 cases of leukemia were identified in residents staying 5km radius from Bukit Merah
– 9 children were registered with illnesses like brain tumour and leukemia. 5 have since died.
– A few children were born mentally retarded and almost blind.
– there are still 80,000 200-litre drums containing radioactive wastes currently kept there.
– these drums containing the radioactive waste have since corroded and therefore pose a serious contamination risk to the environment and residents there
 
The message: the lure of a lucrative business should NEVER be at the expense of the health of the rakyat.
 
S H Tan
 

Waste nightmare still not over


I refer to the article “Dumpsite danger” by Foong Thim Leng (June 13). Foong has clearly done some research before writing the piece and he honours the smalltown people who fought the powers-that-be in a classic David vs Goliath story to emerge victorious.

It was a bitter-sweet victory as the price they had to pay was tremendous – it was paid with blood and disease and death.

This case was one of the longest public interest cases in Malaysia as the trial stretched over 65 days of hearing and over a period of nearly three years. The evidence adduced during the trial included expert and medical testimony which helped to win the case.

Among others, studies were conducted on the children to determine the amount of lead in their blood. The purpose of determining the lead in the blood was to estimate the amount of thorium, a radioactive material that could have been ingested by the children.

Lead and thorium are heavy metals and they are bone seekers (they lodge in the bone and remain there for a very long time). Two-thirds of the children tested were found to have high blood lead levels which itself was a problem.

The writer has made several good points but certain issues have to be clarified.

The expected number of leukaemia cases for a community the size of Bukit Merah is one case in 30 years. The appearance of leukaemia in such cases of exposure would normally be between five and 15 years.

Eight cases of leukaemia were identified within a radius of 5km of Bukit Merah; this is a staggering number which could not have been a chance occurrence.

It must be emphasised that medical surveys in Bukit Merah began in 1987 and not in 1984 as mentioned by the writer.

It must also be pointed out that the medical evidence was not dismissed by the judge as reported.

In fact, on July 11, 1992, the High Court ordered the closure of the ARE factory and the clean-up of the area and indeed accepted the fact that the surrounding area would be contaminated by the radioactive waste produced by the ARE factory.

However, the Supreme Court overturned the High Court’s decision on technicalities and not on the evidence submitted to the court.

Another point that needs to be clarified is that a trust fund was set up for the rehabilitation of the victims. Monetary contributions came from various sources but the main source of the funding was from Japanese support groups. The trust fund is managed by the chairman of PARC (Perak Anti-Radioactive Committee) who disburses the funds to the affected victims.

The case was of public interest as it involved a community that was exposed to hazardous, radioactive waste.

One has to salute this community which fought valiantly to shut down the ARE factory but we cannot forget the contributions of experts from Canada, Japan, India and the United States who provided the technical knowledge and expertise to help close down the factory, and most importantly the legal team and other support staff whose tireless commitment and dedication won the day.

However, even today, the community is still experiencing the consequences of the radioactive waste. The drums containing the radioactive waste which were placed in a Long-Term Storage Facility (LTSF) have since corroded.

Rainwater has seeped into the corroded drums and the contaminated water has leaked into the facility, requiring it to be drained periodically. There is therefore contamination of the environment, including the nearby river.

On hindsight, allowing the setting up of the ARE factory (extraction of rare earth from monazite) in Malaysia by Mitsubishi Chemicals was a huge mistake and the technology used was one that was already banned in 1971 in Japan itself! The lure of nuclear fuel as in thorium must have been so attractive that the health of a community was compromised.

Dr T Jayabalan is a medical practitioner based in Penang.

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