The political chemistry of Lynas

NOV 30 — To most people, chemistry and politics might not seem directly related, yet I have found they are. This is not just because I earned my first degree in the science of chemistry and last studied political science.

Over the last two weeks, thousands of Malaysians marched in protest across the peninsula because chemicals got political.

Chemicals and politics are tied together because we live in an industrial society, and industry — particularly the wealth and power that flows from it — is intensely political.

Governments seek to promote industry in order to generate and capture wealth, which can be reciprocated as political financing.

Industry seeks to influence government in order to secure subsidies, favourable regulatory environments, and access to resources both local and foreign.

The general public, with little concentrated funds or power, is often caught between these two giants of the power elite.

IG Farben is one famous example of political chemistry. This predecessor of BASF, Bayer and Hoescht was the manufacturer of Zyklon B, the pesticide used to perform mass extermination in Holocaust gas chambers.

The Nazis by no means enjoy a monopoly on chemical atrocity.

The Monsanto company of the United States, better known now for its genetically-modified seeds and the artificial sweetener aspartame, was the manufacturer of Agent Orange, a herbicide and defoliant used to devastate swathes of jungle in the Vietnam War as an anti-guerrilla measure.

Indiscriminate use of Agent Orange produced a legacy of birth defects and cancer in post-war Vietnam.

Then there are the more mundane examples of collusion between industry and government in peacetime.

There is a phenomenon in the US called the “revolving door” between business and government whereby senior corporate figures secure highly placed positions in regulatory agencies and vice versa.

Ironically, this international defender of democracy takes a rather relaxed attitude towards conflicts of interest.

In one recent example, close to 450,000 people have signed a petition on signon.org urging President Obama to sever ties between the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Monsanto.

The petition specifically singles out the appointment of Michael Taylor, a former lobbyist for and vice-president of Monsanto, as deputy commissioner for foods at the FDA.

Taylor previously worked as an attorney for the US Department of Agriculture, represented Monsanto as a private lawyer, became deputy commissioner for policy at the FDA, before returning to Monsanto as its vice-president for public policy. Now he occupies a post in the leading US agency for food and drug safety. In, out, in, out. Thus, the “revolving door.”

Why is this a problem?

Not all products which leave a company’s factories are necessarily safe, nor can companies be unconditionally trusted to put out safe products. Regulators have a duty to impartially enforce the public interest, in this case health and safety.

A company’s profit-making interests may cause it to discount public health and safety in order to more swiftly recoup the millions and billions it has spent on research and development.

While government should support legitimate business activities, it should not allow support of business to compromise overall public wellbeing.

A person in a regulatory position whose loyalties are seen to lie more with the corporate sector rather than with the public may not be trusted to discharge their regulatory duties without fear or favour.

Taylor’s time at the FDA is associated with its policy stance that genetically-modified foods were substantially equivalent to conventional foods. This is great for companies such as Monsanto or Syngenta because it relieves them of jumping further regulatory hurdles.

However, it spells bad news for the public if, as some studies suggest, genetically-modified foods are substantially different from conventional foods and pose potential health and environmental risks.

Similar problems appear in Malaysia where political parties and the government they control are deeply and directly involved in business. Here a revolving door is less necessary as a façade to ensure unity in corporate-government policy.

Proxy ownership, ownership via family networks, and dilution of democratic accountability all ensure that the commanding heights of industry are harmonised with government and regulators remain compliant.

If regulators don’t dance to the tune, then the revolving door can hit them on the way out (as former police chief Musa Hassan now alleges).

Regulatory and enforcement agencies have been compromised when it comes to politically-connected business projects. It is a case of “pagar makan padi” as the peribahasa goes.

Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) are supposed to protect the public and the environment from undue harm resulting from development projects. However, the consultants who produce EIAs are paid by the developers. Who will they be disposed to favour?

Governance of radioactive projects falls under the Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB) which promotes radiological activities as well as regulates them. Advocates don’t make the best regulators since they are inclined to discount contrary evidence. A similar problem exists with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

In the past the AELB has insisted that projects such as the Bukit Merah rare earth refinery were safe when they clearly were not. Now, the government has rested on them to help vouch for the safety of the Lynas rare earth plant, a project that has not even produced a long-term waste management plan.

This gaping omission has been finessed through the issuance of a “Temporary” Operating Licence, but this appears to be more of a public relations tactic rather than a genuine attempt at prioritising public safety. Even temporary operations will produce radioactive waste with long-term consequences.

The line repeated in the media about Lynas is that its plant is not comparable to the one from Bukit Merah.

On one level it is vulgarly obvious that some differences will be present in terms of the physical layout and technical aspects of the extraction process.

On the other hand, both plants are comparable in that the regulator and government overseeing them have not changed. They let public interest slip in Bukit Merah and all the signs point to a repeat for Lynas.

The suspicion of unhealthily close ties between Lynas and the government have been deepened by the timeline of the recent rare earth ore shipment to Malaysian shores.

A Reuters report pointed out that Lynas’ order to go ahead with the shipment must have preceded the lifting of the court injunction by some two weeks since it takes a month to arrive from Australia.

Lynas has been holding off commencement of ore processing until clear approval was given. Did they have some insider foreknowledge of the court decision?

That the ore was shipped in under the cover of darkness with a police escort only underlines the lack of transparency that has overshadowed the Lynas problem.

Those citizens who undertook a gruelling 300-kilometre march in monsoon weather from Kuantan to Dataran Merdeka were met with police blockades and threats of violating the so-called Peaceful Assembly Act.

Despite the sensationalism that often comes bundled with protest, there are valid concerns about the radioactive chemistry of the Lynas plant and its waste.

How much waste will be produced, what kind of radiation it produces (alpha, beta or gamma) and in what form, what kinds of effects can these have on humans and the environment, why the plant is sited so close to human habitation and water sources, where and how the waste will be stored and disposed, whether Lynas is simply using Malaysia as a cheap offshore processing site where it can leave its waste — these are all valid and pressing questions that the government and Lynas have failed to adequately answer.

Shutting down Lynas and sending it packing off to another location may be one political answer, but it will not relieve the world from the environmental problems associated with rare earth mining and processing. This is a minority view, but unlike some more parochially-minded people I consider myself human first and Malaysian second.

Ultimately, the problem goes back not just to consumer demand for rare earth products, but to the companies and research scientists who have developed rare earth technologies.

From my own time in the scientific world I suspect the latter two communities have likely spent little time considering the social and environmental consequences of these materials.

Until they are forced to do so, whether by conscience, a demanding public or a publicly-spirited government, we will continue to see these problems recur again and again, if not here in Malaysia then elsewhere in our world.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.



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