Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Australian chemical plant incites biggest environmental protest in Malaysian history

On the morning of Feb 19, 16 protesters, including grandparents, farmers, office workers and businessmen, in Kuantan, Malaysia publicly shaved their heads. As he watched his hair fall, resident Winson Ooi felt a deep sense of injustice, anger and disappointment overwhelm him.

“In our tradition, shaving all of our hair off is a highly symbolic and serious act to show one’s strong feeling and sacrifice to mark one’s determination for a worthy cause,” Ooi said in a release issued by Himpunan Hijau 2.0. “I have to do this for my family.”

Ooi and his young son are just a few of the many citizens acting out against the construction of the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP) in Kuantan, a quiet town on the east coast of Malaysia. The Australia-owned plant will process rare earths – a groups of 15 metallic elements used for items like iPhones, electric car batteries and wind mills – shipped from Lynas’ Mount Weld in Australia. Protesters fear that radiation from the plant could be linked to a number of health concerns and argue that the corporation chose to build outside of Australia for this reason.

Lee Tan, an environmental consultant for the Climate Justice Program, was working in Australia at the Conservation Foundation when she heard about the Lynas project. A native of Kuantan, Tan felt it was her duty to come back and fight the company she says could put farmers, seafood producers and residents who drink local water at risk.

“The location of the plant is within 30 kilometers of a population of 70,000 people – my family and friends among them. The waste water will be discharged into a natural river, which is a major seafood production area and a habitat of tropical mangrove,” Tan, who is also external advisor for the Stop Lynas campaign, said. “The plant is also expected to discharge 1,000 cubic meters of waste gas per hour, which is a lot for a city located so close to the sea and effected so heavily by the wind and ocean current.”

Despite public concerns, the Malaysia Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB) recently granted Lynas a temporary operating license, which could translate to a permanent operating license if Lynas completes requirements set by the Board. According to AELB Director General Raja Dato’ Abdul Aziz Raja Adnan, waste water will be treated to comply with international standards, acid spills will be contained in a bonded concrete structure and beaches surrounding Kuantan are too far away to be affected by radiation emitted by the plant.

Protesters criticize the Malaysian government’s quick and quiet approval of the plant and the absence of public consultation or a waste management plan. Many also argue that the history of past rare earth plants is an indicator of Lynas’ future. Similar plants and radio-active waste dumps have been closed in Papan, California and Bautou due to pollution of river water used for farming and links to lung cancers in workers, among other things. Thirty years ago, Mitsubishi operated a refinery, ARE, in the nearby Malaysian city Ipoh.

“Like Lynas, ARE had no long-term waste management plan, and ad hoc arrangements eventually led to a situation of indiscriminate, clandestine dumping of radioactive thorium-containing wastes in and around Ipoh city,” Chan Chee Khoon, social and preventive medicine professor at the University of Malaysia, said. “The greater Kuantan community similarly faces the prospect unknown number of dump sites at unknown locations scattered in and around the city if Lynas does not come up with an acceptable plan for long-term waste disposal.”

Dr. Jayabalan, a physician in occupational medicine and toxicologist at the National Toxicology Centre (University of Malaysia), was heavily involved in the research of ARE. According to Jayabalan, the main issues involve waste disposal, the use of other chemicals in the extraction process, the overuse of natural resources and the widespread contamination of the surrounding habitat and population.

“We looked at the issue of young, healthy mothers living close to the plant experiencing miscarriages. We noted offspring born with congenital defects. Beyond that, we found at least eight cases of leukemia -- seven of which were acute lymphoblastic leukemia. One of the known causes of this type of leukemia is ionizing radiation,” Dr. Jayabalan said.

According to Cameron Morse, an outside external affairs coordinator for Lynas, it is inaccurate to compare Lynas with a plant like Bukit Mehra because the companies process two different products.

“We don’t doubt Bukit Mehra had some real issues associated with it, but our inputs and outputs are totally different,” Morse said.

Morse adds that the International Atomic Energy Agency reviewed LAMP in 2011 and affirmed its compliance with the highest health and safety standards. According to Morse, it is also important to note that LAMP is located in a designated, large-scale specialist chemical and petrochemical industrial zone that already housed a number of multinational companies including BP Chemicals, Petronas and BASF.

Ionizing radiation is a concern of citizens because rare earth elements, while not radioactive themselves, are often found in conjunction with radioactivity. According to the Lynas website, because the mineral concentrate used by LAMP has such low levels of radiation, it is classified as “safe, non toxic and non hazardous by all international standards.” According to Dr. Jayabalan, however, there is no “safe” level of ionizing radiation.

“It is acceptable in terms of legal language, but in terms of public health, there is no such thing as safe radiation. If it were safe and such a financial gold mind, they wouldn’t transport the materials thousands of miles to Malaysia, they would build in Australia,” Dr. Jayabalan said.

The campaign against Lynas reached new heights on Sunday, Feb 25, when an estimated 20,000 Malaysians came together in protest. According to Wong Tack, chairman of the Green Assembly 2.0 and organizer of the rally, this is the first time an environmental issue has caused Malaysians to take to the streets in such large numbers.

“They are taking advantage of our corrupt system and of a non-functioning administration. They are coming in from the back door and attempting to use us as a dumping site. The people of this country will not accept it,” Tack said. “The voice of the people has been ignored, so now we have no choice but to bring down the plan ourselves.”

Photos contributed by Himpunan Hijau 2.0 and Kelvin Chow, respectively.

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