KUANTAN, March 20 — Federal lawmaker Fuziah Salleh made inroads today in her bid to shore up support against Australian mining giant, Lynas Corp, from powering up a controversial rare earths refinery in Gebeng.
While fewer than 200 people turned up for her public talk on the urgent need to halt the Lynas plant from commencing operations in Malaysia, the pledges of support from city residents were more than encouraging.
The majority Chinese crowd appeared alarmed when they were told the Pahang state government approved the plant’s construction within a week of its application in 2008.
Their alarm turned into consternation when Fuziah informed them that the authorities had not carried out a detailed environmental impact assessment (DEIA) report before granting the approval; and that the neighbouring Terengganu state government had previously rejected Lynas’ application.
“Who made the deal and why?” one man demanded to know.
“I don’t know,” Fuziah replied, adding that she had heard the Australian company was being backed by global financial powerhouse, HSBC, which has fostered a reputation for being environment-friendly.
The distress from the Kuantan residents was palpable, from the murmurs and buzz filling the room as Fuziah showed them slides of babies born with birth defects while telling them about the last time Malaysia allowed a rare earths refinery to be set up in Bukit Merah, Perak.
“What can we do to help?” asked another member from the floor.
“My strategy now is only one: To stop Lynas,” Fuziah replied, earning thunderous applause from the floor.
The first-term Kuantan MP has been fighting a solo battle for the last two years to prevent the plant from being built in Malaysia, but has failed in her quest.
She is now on a drive to petition the Malaysian Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB) to suspend issuing an operating permit to Lynas.
Fuziah said she is targeting to get at least 30 per cent of Kuantan’s 60,000-strong population involved.
Some 600 sets of forms, with space for 50 signatures, were eagerly snapped up after Fuziah sounded a call for help to push the campaign forward.
The volunteer group will be holding a meeting tomorrow evening to flesh out suggestions mentioned during the meeting today.
A local Chinese businessman volunteered to sponsor a bus to ferry the Kuantan residents’ group to Parliament House in Kuala Lumpur next week to meet with Science, Innovation and Technology Minister, Datuk Seri Maximus Onkili, and protest the plant’s construction.
According to Fuziah’s team, a signature drive launched at a farmer’s market earlier this morning garnered some 1,500 supporters within two hours.
Meanwhile, ten hands shot up from among the assembled crowd when she called for volunteers to head the committee of the “Stop Lynas! Save Kuantan” movement.
One of the volunteers, a businesswoman who supplies industrial equipment to the chemical factories in Gebeng, told The Malaysian Insider she was very disturbed by Fuziah’s reports.
“I volunteered because rare earths is very bad. I want to be able to do everything I can to help,” the woman who gave her name as Jing said.
She said she had been scouring the Internet for reports about rare earths and its radioactive hazards after a New York Times report last week highlighted the danger in her backyard.
The Lynas plant is being built in the Gebeng Industrial Zone some 25km to the north of the state capital here.
Pointing to the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan, triggered by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake off the country’s northwest coast last week, the woman who gave her name as Jing voiced concern over the Malaysian authorities’ ability to manage a similar crisis here.
The 44-year-old mother echoed fears raised by green groups of a repeat of Bukit Merah in Perak, where a rare earths plant set up in the 1980s was linked to at least eight leukaemia cases, seven of which resulted in death.
But Lynas has insisted that the rare earths ore to be refined in Gebeng has only two per cent of the radioactive element thorium that was present in the raw material used in Bukit Merah.
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.
The operation has been valued at over RM5 billion in the first year, increasing to RM8 billion in the next.