Abdul Rahim Sabri, Lee Long Hui & Nigel Aw
11:52AM Feb 29, 2012
As rare earth mining giant Lynas clears it’s licence hurdle with the Atomic Energy Licensing Board, Kuantan residents will soon face the prospect of living near a hazardous waste processing plant, the first to be built outside of China in almost 30 years.
Known as the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (Lamp), the largest of its kind in the world, the RM700 million facility will be crucial in breaking China’s monopoly on the global rare earth supply.
While Malaysian leaders appear eager for the country to play host to a facility that will take on the ‘Asian Dragon’, the small coastal town of Gebeng, approximately 30km northeast of Kuantan and its surrounding townships are suddenly under the spotlight.
Lamp will produce three forms of by-products but locals and environmental activists are most concerned about possible leakages in the storage of the leech water purification waste containing radioactive thorium and uranium.
Lynas aims to fire up its facility by the second quarter of this year but opinions about the plant and how serious this will affect locals’ vote come the general election remain mixed.
A majority of people around Kuantan appear torn over the plant’s safety despite guarantees from the government and Lynas Malaysia, and some are even mulling to move out from the town.
Unconvinced over safety of facility
Restaurant operator Nor Azlina Ahmad Suid, who has been residing in Kuantan since 1997, is among those who want out.
“I will certainly go elsewhere, what is there to wait? There will be illness,” said the mother of three children.
Though admitting that she is unclear of Lamp’s impact, she is unconvinced by reassurances that the facility is safe.
“Even though the government gives its guarantee, but it can say anything it likes, we will never know what will happen in future,” she said.
She adds that she will hold the government responsible at the ballot box in the event of any fallout.
Meanwhile, pickled fruit seller Baharudin Salleh, who has lived in Kuantan for the last 45 years, questioned Lynas’ insistence to operate in Malaysia instead of in Australia.
“If it is safe then they should do it in their country, but they want to do it here, what is the reason?,” he asked, adding that he may consider moving out.
Asked for his view if Lynas would be a factor for locals come general election, he replied: “This will likely affect BN here.”
Meanwhile, Suzliana Mohd Ghazali (right), 33, who helps her mother in a grocery store is concerned that the plant will affect their business.
“When it (Lamp) is ready, tourists may be less keen to come to Kuantan, especially since the plant is near the coastal towns such as Cherating, Balok beach and Batu Hitam beach,” she said, while her 60-year-old mother silently watched on as she rocked Suzliana’s four-year-old son in the cradle.
Suzliana who resides in Kampung Pantai Batu Hitam, 15km south of Gebeng, has three other sons aged ten, eight and seven.
While she accepts the government’s explanation that the plant is safe, Suzliana said still worries about the long-term effects.
Nonetheless, she will remain in Kuantan because she has “no other choice” as her husband works here and they have already bought a house.
“But before my house was priced at about RM145,000, suddenly after the Lynas factory came up, people wanted to sell their houses and my house is now at about RM125,000.
“The market has fallen drastically,” she lamented.
There has not been empirical evidence to show that the fall in prices was a direct cause of Lamp.
Asked if she considers Lynas an important election issue, she replied: “Of course.”
Perception battle will hurt Kuantan
On the other hand, Asrul Zamani (right), 36, who operates a food stall does not see this as an election issue or that it will affect his business.
However, he is concerned that the back and forth safety argument between the government and activists will create negative perceptions and affect Kuantan’s economy.
“The government keeps saying it is safe, but I don’t know, there are others who say at a point in future it will become unsafe because it has radiation… so the rakyat are asking whether this is really safe or not,” he said.
Asrul currently lives in Kampung Cenderawasih, near the heart of Kuantan and is a father to three children, aged eight, three and one.
He adds that whatever happens he will remain in Kuantan, saying: “We’re just a small business, not a big tauke, like it or not we must remain here, what can we do?”
As for Joesmart Ali (left), 35, who resides in Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak’s constituency of Pekan but works in Kuantan as a security guard, says he is largely influenced by his friends.
“I asked many of my friends, is it true Lynas is harmful and I can see that they’re all fearful,” he said.
However, he said, it would make little difference in opposing the project, stating:
“This is for the people above to decide because they have the power, we don’t have any power so we can only follow, if we were to die then so be it.”
Asked if this will influence him at the ballot box, Joesmart appeared uncertain, merely saying: “I don’t know, maybe it’s politics, people are saying it’s harmful but the government says otherwise, if anything bad happens they will have to be responsible.”
Meanwhile, Rozana Sali, 50 who runs a Malay traditional medicine shop is confident that Lamp is safe.
“During former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s time, many people questioned his mega projects such as the Penang Bridge, Cyberjaya and Proton, but today Malaysia has developed,” she said proudly, adding that she will continue to support BN.
Similarly, Rohmah Deraman who runs a pickled fruit stall said she is satisfied by the government’s guarantee, on top of explanations from her friends in the Pahang Malay Chambers of Commerce.
“BN’s vote will be unaffected come general election,” she said.