A worker waters the site of a rare earth metals mine in Jiangxi. China holds a virtual monopoly on rare earth supply. — file pic
KUALA LUMPUR, March 9 — Malaysia is gambling on a new processing plant in Kuantan to produce metals possibly worth over RM5 billion a year, nearly two decades after protests forced Mitsubishi Chemicals to close down a rare earth plant near Ipoh due to environmental damage — damage which it is still trying to clean up today.
A New York Times (NYT) report said today Australian mining company Lynas’s refinery in Kuantan could break China’s chokehold on rare earth metals that are crucial to high technology products such as Apple’s iPhone, the Toyota Prius and Boeing’s smart bombs, said the newspaper.
“If rare earth prices stay at current lofty levels, the refinery will generate US$1.7 billion (RM5 billion) a year in exports starting late next year, equal to nearly one per cent of the entire Malaysian economy,” the newspaper said.
“But as Malaysia learned the hard way a few decades ago, refining rare earth ore usually leaves thousands of tons of low-level radioactive waste behind,” it added, referring to a plant in Bukit Merah.
The Bukit Merah Asian Rare Earth plant near Ipoh was also reported by the New York Times to be still quietly undergoing a US$100 million cleanup exercise despite shutting down in 1992.
The New York Times reported that as many as 2,500 workers are rushing to complete a US$230 million plant in Gebeng, near Kuantan, that will refine slightly radioactive ore from Australia.
It said it will be the first such plant outside China in nearly three decades as the rest of the world became wary of the environmental hazards, leaving China to control 95 per cent of global supply of the rare metals.
Beijing’s recent moves to limit exports of rare earth has propelled world prices of the material to record highs, sending industrial countries scrambling for alternatives, the report continued.
This has spurred Australian mining company Lynas to rush the refinery, which it says will meet nearly a third of the world’s demand for rare earth materials.
According to the NYT, the Malaysian government was eager for the investment by Lynas, even offering a 12-year tax holiday.
It quoted Raja Datuk Abdul Aziz bin Raja Adnan, the director-general of the Malaysian Atomic Energy Licensing Board, who said the project was only approved after an inter-agency review.
He said the report indicated that the imported ore and subsequent waste would have low enough levels of radioactivity to be manageable and safe.
“We have learned we shouldn’t give anybody a free hand,” Raja Adnan told the newspaper.
However, toxicologist Dr. Jayabalan A. Thambyappa, who has treated leukaemia victims whose illnesses he and others have attributed to the Mitsubishi plant, contends that low or not, exposure to such material remains hazardous.
“The word ‘low’ here is just a matter of perception — it’s a carcinogen,” said Dr Jayabalan.
The Bukit Merah plant was opened by Japanese company Mitsubishi Chemicals in 1985, before being shuttered in 1992 following years of protests by residents concerned with pollution, the NYT said.
Rare earths, a group of 17 elements found near the bottom of the periodic table, are not radioactive themselves.
But virtually every rare earth ore deposit around the world contains, in varying concentrations, a slightly radioactive element called thorium.
Fuziah has received scant support in her bid to halt the rare earth plant in Kuantan. — file pic
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.
Rare earths contain low-levels of radioactive material. — Reuteters pic
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.
Minerals refined from rare earth are used in a wide range of consumer electronics. — Reuters pic
“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.
P/S: Recent news articles from The Malaysian Insider. Gebeng is a industrial area around 25km from Kuantan City. Will this affect the environment in population dense area? What do you think?