KUALA LUMPUR, March 30 — A Kuantan man made an impassioned plea today for Datuk Seri Najib Razak to halt the construction of a controversial rare earths refinery near his home town, after an attempt to protest the project was snubbed earlier by the Prime Minister’s Office.
Earlier today, about 100 residents from Kuantan had gathered at the entrance of Parliament to voice out against Australian mining firm Lynas’s plans to build the new plant in Gebeng.
“We don’t want another Bukit Merah incident. We just want to make an appeal to PM. I know you (Najib) are watching, but this is what the citizens want,” implored Vincent Jiam Tee Hoong, the chairman of the residents’ movement.
Bukit Merah in Perak was the site of a rare earth plant operated by Mitsubishi Chemicals, which has been blamed for an increase in the incidence of leukaemia in workers and nearby residents.
The site was shut down in the 1990s but, two decades later, is now undergoing a reported RM300 million clean-up operation by Mitsubishi Chemicals.
Stressing that the opposition towards the construction was grounded in concerns over safety hazards posed by the radioactive material to be processed at the plant, Jiam took pains to say that the protest was not political in nature.
“We want you (Najib) to be remembered doing one thing for us. You could be a ‘bapa penyelamat’ (father of salvation),” the father of two told reporters during an emotional press conference today.
The kindergarten teacher at times struggled to contain his outrage as he pleaded with the Australian firm to abandon its plans for the refinery.
“Please pack up and leave and go home and leave. Don’t leave anything behind. Don’t even leave your slippers behind,” he said in a trembling voice.
Revealing that the movement had so far gathered over 20,000 signatures for a petition against the plant, Jiam then asked Malaysians to put themselves in the shoes of those staying in the vicinity of the refinery and to lend their support in opposing it.
“How many residents will be affected? I believe the whole nation will be affected. Please care for us,” he said.
The Lynas plant is being built in the Gebeng Industrial Zone some 25km to the north of the state capital here.
Lynas corporate and business development vice president Matthew James has denied that the plant will be dangerous and told The Malaysian Insider that radiation will be minimal as the raw material used has only two per cent of the thorium found in the material processed in Bukit Merah.
Thorium is the radioactive element found in nearly all rare earth deposits.
However, Dr Jayabalan A. Thambyappa, the toxicologist who treated radiation victims linked to the Bukit Merah rare earth plant, has dismissed claims there will be little or no health hazards from a renewed attempt to process the valuable metals in Gebeng.
He told The Malaysian Insider that “the issue of safe levels of radiation does not arise; carcinogens are carcinogens” and warned that the government was going down the same route as the Bukit Merah refinery that shut down in 1992.
Lynas is expecting to receive a preliminary operating licence from the AELB before September to begin refining the rare earth metals, used in such high-technology products as smartphones, hybrid cars and even bombs.