Last Updated: Fri, 20 May 2011 21:18:00 +1000
Australian mining company Lynas is facing a backlash in Malaysia over the construction of a plant to refine rare earths.
The plant’s main waste contains the radioactive element thorium linked to birth defects and leukaemia and the people of Kuantan say they do not want it in their backyard.
But Lynas says the waste is safe and the Malaysian government had given approval for the plant to go ahead.
Recently, the Malaysian government bowed to public pressure and announced an inquiry into the safety of the plant.
It has appointed an independent panel of international experts to review the health and safety aspects of the project and report their findings to the government.
Local people say they are determined to stop the plant regardless of what the investigation finds.
Kuantan’s federal member of parliament, Fuziah Salleh, has been instrumental in mounting the campaign to stop the refinery plant.
On May 20 she led community groups from Kuantan in a protest march against Lynas to the Australian High Commission in Kuala Lumpur.
Ms Salleh is critical of what she says are lower environmental standards in Malaysia and double standards from Lynas.
“I’m very concerned that Lynas is taking advantage of the local laws and does not implement what it is supposed to implement in Australia, but rather use lower standards here in Malaysia,” she said.
“There has not been an industry, a refinery as large as Lynas outside China prior to this one.
“And that should have alerted our authorities to be more stringent, look into it more closely, to consult the public as well as to weigh the risk that this refinery will bring to the communities.”
According to Ms Salleh, the risk comes from the waste that will contain thorium left over once the rare earths are extracted.
Thorium occurs at low levels naturally in the environment but if ingested in food or water or inhaled through contaminated dust can increase the risk of cancer.
The city of Kuantan is located on Malaysia?s east coast about three hours from Kuala Lumpur. It is known for tourism and fishing.
In 2008, the government of Pahang State agreed to a plan to host the Lynas advanced materials plant.
The refinery is intended to supply a third of the world?s demand for rare earths, by processing concentrated ore shipped to Malaysia from the Mount Weld mine in Western Australia.
Rare earths are a group of elements used in high tech equipment including phones and computers, hybrid cars and missiles.
Lynas were reportedly attracted to Malaysia by the 12-year tax free holiday offered by the government to boost investment.
Lynas’s executive chairman, Nick Curtis, said Kuantan was chosen as the location for the plant to take advantage of skilled labour there.
“We move it (concentrate) to a location where there is an advantage for us which is an existing chemical park where we can get the chemicals, where there’s sufficient water, where there’s gas and cheap energy, where there’s good, skilled labour,” he said.
“And on the east coast of Malaysia there is good, skilled labour.”
But an engineer and advisor to the Environmental Protection Society of Malaysia, Gurmit Singh, believes Malaysia was chosen because of relaxed environmental laws.
“Why don’t they do the processing in Australia? Why send it to Malaysia? It is the perfect example of a polluting industry being exported to a developing country,” he said.
The local community and environmental groups have raised concerns over the management of radioactive waste from the refinery.
They say the waste product thorium will affect fishing, tourism and public health.
The Anti-Lynas group Save Malaysia Stop Lynas spokesperson, Vincent Jiam, said the community was not prepared to face the impacts the waste could have.
“The bigger impact is that the amount of waste, radioactive waste, that’s been permanently stored here, I feel that our people are not prepared to be committed to bear this burden,” he said.
But Lynas’s executive chairman Nick Curtis claims his company is the victim of a campaign of misinformation which has riled community fears.
“Now our job is to be very transparent to the community, give them the facts and encourage them to deal with those facts and think about the facts and know that the plant is safe.”
Mr Curtis said there is no discernible risk to the community of radiation exposure even for workers inside the plant.
“For somebody who works full-time in the concentrate plant at the end of the year they have had a radiation exposure less than if they’d had three X-rays during the year, so virtually nil and of no safety health hazard,” he said.
But an environmental engineer from Monash University, Dr Gavin Mudd, said one of the concerns about the Kuantan project was the lack of detail being provided by the company.
“There’s more than one waste stream that comes out of a process plant like a rare earths plant. So we need to have a full account of where all the inputs comes from and where all the waste goes and where the thorium sits in all of that,” Dr Mudd said.
“I think until we’ve got a full, transparent, public account of that then I think there are good reasons to have concerns.”
Vincent Jiam operates a kindergarten in Kuantan and was so concerned about the refinery?s potential impact that he became chairman of the Save Malaysia Stop Lynas Group.
He said 20-years ago Mitsubishi chemicals was forced to shut its Asian Rare Earth plant in Bukit Merah near Penang because of thorium radiation.
A recent investigation by the New York Times newspaper found around Bukit Merah there was a higher level than normal of leukaemia and birth defects. The company continues to clean up the disaster.
Mr Jiam said he was concerned history would be repeated.
“In the past it was Asian Rare Earth and the after effects was actually very bad for our people,” he said.
But Lynas executive chairman Nick Curtis said the situation at Bukit Merah was different.
“Bukit Merah was a very different material with a very, very much higher level of radioactive materials in the residue material,” he said.
The $230 million plant is due to start operating in September.
Malaysian anti-Lynas campaign gains strength
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