Saturday, 14 July 2012 20:22
Written by Pak Bui
What’s the problem with Lynas?
In a nutshell, it’s an identical issue to the Taib family’s Pressmetal Aluminium Smelter in Mukah. It shares the same origins as Taib’s land grabs, the greed that turns priceless forests into cheap plywood and oil palm.
The problem is that rich people in some faraway place, distant from Lynas, will get richer, while poor people pay with their lives.
Winners & Losers
In the case of Lynas, rich people in Umno and Australia profit, while the rakyat lose. Lynas is a mining company that has no proven track record, yet intends to ship gigantic containers of soil, laden with minerals called rare earth, from Western Australia to Gebeng, near Kuantan, Pahang.
In its factory in Gebeng, surrounded by half a million people within a 30km radius, Lynas proposes to extract the rare earth from the soil, and ship it to hungry industries manufacturing ‘smartphones’, computers and other electronic gadgets. The leftover mud will be radioactive, and Lynas has refused to say what it will do with the hazardous waste soil.
The New York Times broke the news a year ago to incredulous readers, that Lynas will be operating a factory handling radioactive materials, with no plan to dispose of the radioactive waste. The embarrassing reports exposed the Australian company’s pitiful lack of experience.
According to the New York Times (NYT), engineers have reported cracks in the storage tanks for the toxic mud. “The problems they detail include structural cracks, air pockets and leaks in many of the concrete shells for 70 containment tanks, some of which are larger than double-deckerbuses”.
Only Chinese complaining?
A Dutch supplier of resin or glue for the storage tanks, AkzoNobel, objected to cracks, moisture and shabby structural engineering in Lynas’s half-built plant. “We will not certify or even consider the use of our coatings if this problem can’t be fixed,” its spokesman told the NYT last year.
Eventually, Akzonobel declined to place its global reputation on the line, and pulled out of the project, obviously afraid that any major radioactive leak would cause a terrible human catastrophe.
Lynas and the government have failed to consult the local communities, and have played stupid, see-through public relations games. The government, including the much-ridiculed Pahang Menteri Besar Adnan Yaakob, have aggressively defended Lynas, while keeping details a secret.
Adnan even used the old tactic of trying to dismiss the anti-Lynas campaign on racial grounds, implying only the Chinese were complaining. In fact, Malay farmers and fishermen stand to be the worst affected, and all local communities have been running a vigorous campaign against the radioactive plant.
Eyewitnesses say 15,000 people of all races took part in the Himpunan Hijau on February 26 in Kuantan. “I couldn’t see the edge of the crowd from where I stood,” said one protestor who had travelled four hours to get there.
Huge risks – but the rich benefit
Dangerous transport of radioactive materials, the factory itself, and the toxic waste dump, all pose unacceptable risks. Leakage, or an accident, at any of these stages would cause poisoning of the people, wildlife, soil and sea for many kilometres around, and winds would carry poisons further afield.
Anti-Lynas campaigners have pointed out that Australia does not want this polluting industry, yet Malaysia’s government has offered ten years of tax free status. Kuantan’s economy will potentially lose huge sums of money from loss of tourism, fisheries, agriculture – and from emigration of those with enough money to leave.
Why is Umno’s government is willing to risk poisoning the lives and livelihood of hundreds of thousands? Mahathir’s son Mokhzani, for one, was given a contract to supply the plant. Many Umno businessmen will make a fortune from this RM700 million plant – and then take the money and run. Poor local people will be left to fend for themselves.
Since Australia refuses to take the radioactive waste back, the poison will be dumped somewhere around Kuantan. We have already witnessed the horrors of a far smaller radioactive rare earth factory and dump site in Bukit Merah and Papan, Perak, starting in 1982. There, residents reported a heartbreaking increase in children born with birth defects, learning disabilities and cancer.
A plague of blood cancer or leukaemia visited the local population of Bukit Merah. Before the rare earth factory, several years had passed without residents hearing of new cases. After ARE, eight children developed leukaemia within five years; seven of them died.
The national incidence of leukaemia is approximately 2.9 per 100,000 per year. In the local Bukit Merah and Papan community of 11,000, that leukaemia rate was a shocking five times the national average. The Malaysian government has admitted to the United Nations that the leukaemia rate there was higher than the national average, but argued there was no way of proving the rare earth waste had been responsible for this surge in numbers.
Bukit Merah’s Asian Rare Earth (ARE) factory, owned by Mitsubishi Japan, produced a tiny amount of radioactive waste compared to the sludge that will come from Lynas. ARE produced some 1,700 tonnes of radioactive waste a year for some ten years.
75 new leukaemia patients a year
Lynas proposes to create 20,000 to 50,000 tonnes of radioactive waste a year, or 10 to 30 times the amount of radioactive waste of Bukit Merah. Based on our past experience of 1,700 tonnes of toxic waste a year, as in ARE in Bukit Merah, we might be looking at 75 new leukaemia patients a year in a population the size of Kuantan’s. If the production in Lynas is 10 to 30 times that amount, we will surely see far more.
We have heard the smiling lies before, from government and industry, about radioactive waste being “safe” in Bukit Merah. Now, Umno insists on bulldozing the Lynas plant through.
Taib Mahmud and Musa Aman preside over land grabs in Sarawak and Sabah for exactly the same reasons: greed and corruption. Lynas, Bakun, and Mukah are the fruits of the same tree. Corruption is in all our backyards, and if we are to live, we must uproot this parasitic tree.
Bersih 2.0 and Himpunan Hijau were a good start, with tens of thousands showing solidarity for those of our fellow human beings under threat. If we stand together, we can one day be rid of our most shamelessly corrupt politicians.