KUALA LUMPUR, March 10 — As Australian mining giant Lynas Corp readies to fire up its rare earths refinery in Kuantan, lawmakers here and Down Under are joining hands to halt its progress and prevent a potential environmental and health disaster.
Kuantan MP Fuziah Salleh has said she is working together with her counterparts in Australia's Green Party to pressure their respective governments to look deeper into the environmental and health risks posed by the US$230 million (RM700 million) project and set up safeguards before Lynas starts operations at the Kuantan facility.
Rare earths are a group of minerals that are increasingly vital to the manufacture of high-technology products — ranging from mobile phones and televisions to energy-saving fluorescent light bulbs — and contain low-levels of radioactive material.
“The Green Party MPs in Australia are going to pressure their Australian government to tell Lynas not to dump their waste in Malaysia,” the opposition MP told The Malaysian Insider yesterday.
On her side, Fuziah said she is lobbying the Najib administration to compel Lynas to take back its waste to Australia for disposal.
One of the biggest worries, she said, was over Lynas’s waste management plans.
Terengganu — which was Lynas’s first choice — had rejected the Australian company’s proposal in 2007, bowing to pressure from green groups for the same concerns, she noted.
“I plan to speak on Monday. I am the only MP who takes up this issue in Parliament... It’s a lonely battle,” the 51-year-old said, adding that she received little support even from her colleagues in the Pakatan Rakyat.
Perak DAP chief, Datuk Ngeh Koo Ham, told The Malaysian Insider he too was against the Lynas plant, after reading a New York Times report yesterday highlighting a decades-old radioactive disaster in his Perak home state.
“We should not bring to our shores things that have been rejected by others,” the Beruas MP said when contacted.
The New York Times reported eight leukaemia cases over the last five years in the former mining town of Bukit Merah, the site of a rare earths refinery for Japanese company, Mitsubishi Chemicals back in the 1990s.
The influential US newspaper added that the community of 11,000 people should only have one case every 30 years under normal circumstances.
Locals there have blamed Mitsubishi Chemicals for the spate of birth defects suffered by former workers exposed to the radioactive material, a view shared by healthcare personnel treating those affected by the radiation.
Ngeh said he understood that the world needs rare earth, and if a plant were to be built in Kuantan, it must be far away from residential areas and waste products should be disposed of safely.
But Fuziah said incidents of toxic effluents leaching into the ground and contaminating water sources nationwide have been widely reported, adding that it had already affected Sungai Balok, which runs through the industrial area just north of Kuantan and into the South China Sea.
The New York Times also wrote that the Lynas plant, which is being built in Gebeng, will house radiation sensors and the latest equipment in pollution control, besides featuring 12 acres of temporary storage pools that will be lined with dense plastic and sit atop nearly impermeable clay, to hold the slightly radioactive by-products until they can be carted away.
“There have been no clear procedures how they are going to remove the radioactive by-products,” Fuziah said.
“No EIA either,” she added, referring to the environmental impact assessment that is required by law before a project is approved by the authorities.
Kuantan is Malaysia’s biggest fishing base.
Truckloads of seafood caught off its coast are delivered daily to markets throughout the peninsula.
According to Fuziah, who is a PKR vice-president, both the federal and state governments had shrugged off the possible radioactive risks.
“He said it was similar to the foam used in fire-fighting,” Fuziah said, relating her conversation with Pahang Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Adnan Yaakob, on the risk posed by the lathanides (the scientific name for the rare earth metal).
Pahang state lawmakers within the greater Kuantan parliamentary constituency have backed Adnan’s view.
“Even some granite stones have more radiation than a lanthanide. Even amang is higher,” Pang Tsu Ming, state assemblyman of Semambu, told The Malaysian Insider when contacted.
Amang is a by-product of tin mining.
The MCA man was one of two state lawmakers in Pahang who had been invited to visit the Lynas mine in Western Australia, over 800km northeast of Perth, about two years ago, and tested the ore for radioactivity.
Pang’s colleague, Chang Hong Seong, said they too were initially worried about the residual waste from the refining process.
But they said the Australian trip helped to change their minds.
Chang who is Teruntu assemblyman said they were told Lynas has struck a deal with another company to turn the waste product into concrete.
“We will not pursue economic development at the expense of environment and people’s health,” he said.