With the cabinet due to make its decision soon, David Anthony explores what’s behind the Pakatan Harapan’s government reversal of its position on the rare earth refinery.
Asean Foreign Ministers in Bangkok on 3 August called for a stop to the illegal trans-boundary movement of hazardous chemicals and waste, expressing concern about the protection of human health and the environment.
The ministers were referring mainly to plastic waste.
But what if a similar movement of hazardous chemicals was allowed to operate legally by a government? I am referring to the Lynas Malaysia Sdn Bhd’s rare earth refinery in Gebeng.
Lynas maintains that it has complied with its licence conditions requiring residue to be stored safely.
But how has it complied when it says that it cannot export 450,000 tonnes of the water leach purification (WLP) residue, a by-product of its refinery operations, by September and instead offered to build a permanent disposal facility (PDF) as a compromise? This means that the radioactive residue remains in Malaysia.
The license was issued by the previous government and the present Pakatan Harapan government wants to extend the licence.
Blaming Barisan Nasional for the country’s disasters and yet continuing the process is not the change of government the people of Gebeng wanted.
Lynas has deposited $42.2m (RM177m) in cash and cash-backed bonds with the government to fund long-term residue management at its Pahang plant. Is money the reason for the continuance?
The plant’s three-year permit will expire on 2 September, and the government wants to extend the permit for another six months until they come up with a plan to deal with the WLP residue.
And they plan to do that by using the disused tin mines in Pahang. Is that a wise proposition, when almost all groundwater in the peninsula is connected?
Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Minister Yeo Bee Yin, who has expert knowledge on the matter, was adamant that the plant’s radioactive waste should not be kept on Malaysian soil but be shipped back to Australia as a prerequisite for Lynas’ licence renewal.
Australia was equally adamant in not accepting it back. Lynas Corp welcomed Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s announcement of the removal of the requirement for it to repatriate its waste as a precondition for its licence renewal, despite what Minister Yeo said.
She admitted this is not ideal but is a better resolution. Is it really?
Do we understand the long-term hazards of radioactivity? Although radioactive hazards are claimed to be containable, rare earth metals remain dangerous for a long time because they contain thorium and uranium. Should we take that risk?
In 1982, Asia Rare Earth Sdn Bhd, a rare earth metal extracting company, was opened in Bukit Merah by Mitsubishi Chemical Industries Ltd and Beh Minerals. It was extracting yttrium, a rare earth from monazite which contains thorium and uranium.
People in the nearby town of Papan complained of smoke and foul smell coming from the factory and had difficulty breathing. Asia Rare Earth had built a waste dump near the town.
The people started to take action. Papan residents, with support from friends, blocked the road to the waste dumpsite. More than 3,000 people including women and children held a peaceful assembly and signed a petition and sent it to Mahathir.
Mahathir’s response was that the government had taken every precaution to ensure safety, and the construction of the radioactive disposal site would be continued.
The construction was said to be flimsy. The concrete walls of the dumpsite were barely one inch thick.
Support for the Papan people’s struggle grew, joined by the residents of Bukit Merah, Lahat, Meglembu and Taman Badri Shah and concerned activists from Penang and Kuala Lumpur.
The local people formed the Bukit Merah Acting Committee, supported by Sahabat Alam Malaysia. They measured the radiation levels and found it to be 88 times higher than the upper limit allowed by the International Commission of Radiology Protection (ICRP). They submitted a memorandum to the prime minsiter.
The government invited the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and they declared that the waste was not safe for the public.
The government decided to go through with the original plan anyway. The residents went on a one-day hunger strike.
It was a long struggle. Several experts were brought in, and against their findings, the government persisted in letting Asian Rare Earth operate until the residents themselves took the matter to court.
The people won when the court ordered a halt.
Yet, Asian Rare Earth appealed. It went back and forth, a drawn-out battle that took 32 months.
In July 1992, the residents finally won their suit against Asian Rare Earth. But the company only closed the factory on 19 January 1994.
Although the factory was closed, there remained 80,000 litres of radioactive waste in barrels. It was decided to store them in the belly of the Kledang mountain range on the outskirts of Ipoh. It took more than 20 years to remove 11,000 trucks of radioactive waste.
Bukit Merah’s site clean-up had been the largest radiation clean-up so far in the world’s rare earth industry.
How long is it going to take Lynas to dispose of 450,000 tons of WLP?
Lynas claims to provide employment to numerous workers who are also urged to defend the company. Working in such close proximity to radioactivity, they cannot be totally unexposed.
The processing of radioactive materials at Bukit Merah was reportedly associated with eight cases of leukaemia and seven deaths.
Mrs Lai Kwan worked in a lumber mill. She was offered a better paying job at Asian Rare Earth. She was pregnant and her son was born with physical defects and cataracts and atrial septal defect (ASD) and mental problems.
Asian Rare Earth began operations in Nagoya, Japan and was the cause of severe asthma there. And they moved to Malaysia.
Was Lynas a cause for concern in Australia? Why did they move to Malaysia, and why does Australia adamantly refuse to take back the WLP? The answer is only too obvious. Malaysia has become a dumpsite for the second time.
Bentong MP Wong Tack, Kuantan MP Fuziah Salleh, Save Malaysia Stop Lynas leader Tan Boon Teet and Yeo have spoken strongly, but their words seem to have fallen on deaf ears in the cabinet.
Wong has said that dumping radioactive waste in abandoned mines is akin to killing a rape victim. Instead of healing the piece of land, we are destroying it forever.
Tan is calling for a legal challenge through a judicial review initiated by the residents if the government decides to lift the condition placed on Lynas by the environment minister.
This is a commendable move and the Gebeng residents should be supported for the future of all, especially the young people.
The young people, now that they have been given the chance to vote, should already begin to voice out now and claim their future.
It is indeed their future that is in the balance. The Pakatan Harapan government ought to consider that giving 18-year-olds the chance to vote while destroying their future could well become counterproductive.
It is our hope that the cabinet representing the people makes a decision in favour of the people on 15 August.
David Anthony, a long-time Aliran member and activist, is a writer of several historical novels. He is based in the Klang Valley.