by Maclean Patrick, Wong Choon Mei, Malaysia Chronicle
The Lynas rare-earth refinery has become a hotbed of controversy. Prime Minister Najib Razak has gone to great lengths to justify the need to have the RM700 million refinery operate at a small town in his home-state.
According to Najib, the government has already reviewed Lynas Corp’s operations and the firm has been given strict guidelines to follow. “We would not give an operating license unless we are satisfied that the local community can accept that this project is safe,” he told the press in the wake of the 20,000-strong Himpunan Jijau 2.0 protest held last weekend.
The PM also noted that one of the conditions attached to Lynas Corp’s Temporary Operating Licence is that the disposal of toxic waste materials must be done at a remote location away from the local community. But this does not in any way appease or help to assure Malaysians especially the residents in Gebeng, Pahang, where the plant is sited.
“If the rare earth processed by Lynas is not toxic, it would require a different method of disposal. But toxicity is a subjective matter and should not be taken lightly," Robert Phang, an executive council member of the Malaysian Crime Prevention Foundation and a former member of the MACC Consultation and Corruption Prevention Panel, said in a statement.
"Australia is many time larger than Malaysia but how come it does not allow such a facility on its land? The reason is very obvious. As such Malaysia should not and cannot allow itself to be used by Australia as a toxic rare earth dumping ground. If the government approves the Lynas facility at all risks, it will inevitably arouse suspicion of corruption in the project.”
Corruption most foul
Indeed, cries of corruption - ever present in the Malaysian scenario - are beginning to grow louder given the lengths that the Najib administration is going through to ensure the project is not scrapped.
Meanwhile, minister in the PM's department, Koh Tsu Koon, insists the hunt for a suitable storage site for waste material from the Lynas operation will involve as many as four ministries. But even if it involved a hundred ministries, it will not reduce the risks of contamination by a single decimal place.
So far, the ongoing discussions have included the Science, Technology and Innovation; Health; International Trade and Industry; and Natural Resources and Environment ministries. “I have also spoken up on this issue within the Cabinet, and my colleagues in the Cabinet have already made a statement to ask Lynas to move their waste material away,” Koh said.
Critics of the Lynas refinery want the government to halt its construction and direct the Atomic Energy Licensing Board’s (AELB) to reverse a decision to grant Lynas a temporary operating licence (TOL), which will allow it to embark on a two-year trial run. They allege that the Australian miner has not given enough assurances on how it will handle the low-level radioactive waste that will be produced at the refinery. They further assert that plans for an off-site storage location for the refinery’s waste material “is totally senseless” and reflected “a shallow understanding of the ecological system and blatant disrespect of natural environment.”
Things done in reverse - why?
Indeed, the Najib administration seems to be doing things in reverse. Facilities have been built before a TOL was issued and even though Najib assured that the local community must be satisfied the project was safe before giving the green light. A sign that the discontent is not only strong but rising is the overwhelming show of support from across the nation at last weekend's anti-Lynas campaign in Kuantan. Thousands turned up at the Himpunan Hijau 2.0 rally organized by Gebeng residents, activists and PKR MP Fuziah Salleh to protest the Lynas plant.
Without doubt, there is fear something is seriously wrong with Lynas and it is not just about the environmental impact the radioactive waste material may leave,but there is also deep concern at why the Najib administration could allow such a “dirty” industry to come into Malaysia.
Firstly, by allowing a rare-earth refinery on local shores, does this open the door for Malaysia to take in other “dirty” industries unwanted by the more prudent nations in the world? Is Malaysia that far sunk in its economic deterioration that it has no choice but to literally be the "toilet" of the world so to speak in order to avert recession?
Remember, Aussie-based Lynas could not get a permit from its own home government to set up its refinery plant and Australia is a continent with vast tracts of remote and un-peopled interiors. While the Australian government shuns the headache of having to potentially deal with radioactive waste, a gullible Najib not only accepts the offer hook, line and sinker but event plants the refinery in his home state.
There are also plans for an aluminium smelting plant to be built in Bintulu, Sarawak. Again a sign that Malaysia is positioning itself as a safe-haven for "dirty" industries with hazardous waste products that no-one else wants to harbor.
Now only looking for dumping ground? How can that be?
Secondly, why is the Najib government, only now looking for a means of disposing the Lynas waste products? This need to search for a safe dumping ground comes after issuance of a TOL. Should not the dumping site be identified first before issuing any TOL? Should not due notice be given to residents living nearby to the dumping site? Why are things being done in such an incompetent and unprofessional manner that clearly suggest a plan to hide and to deceive the residents and the Malaysian public?
Again, a sign that things are being done in reverse by the Najib administration and deliberately so. But is this not the modus-operandi of the Najib administration and how it to-date has gone about its business. Whether Najib realizes it or not, it is like he is conjuring up a project, dumping it onto the community and forcing the residents to accept the plans. And when mishaps happen - like in the Bukit Merah rare earth refinery where radioactive contamination had killed several people and injured dozens - the BN government acts as if no such negative occurrence had ever taken place before.
Determined to reprise the Bukit Merah tragedy
The Bukit Merah case is little known even in Malaysia, and virtually unknown in the West because the plant-operator, Mitsubishi Chemical, quietly agreed to fix the problem without any legal order to do so. Local protesters had contacted Japanese environmentalists and politicians, who in turn helped persuade the image-conscious company to close the refinery in 1992 and subsequently spend an estimated USD100 million to clean up the site.
Workers in protective gear have already removed over 11,000 truckloads of radioactively contaminated material, hauling away every trace of the old refinery and even tainted soil from beneath it, down to the bedrock as much as 25 feet below, To dispose off the radioactive material, engineers had to cut off the top of a hill located three miles deep in a forest reserve, bury the material inside the hill’s core and then entombed it under more than 20 feet of clay and granite. So far, Bukit Merah residents - 11,000 in number, have suffered eight leukemia cases within a five year period. Seven of the leukemia victims have since died.
The people must rise before such an uncaring government
The pressure to close the Bukit Merah refinery came from local and Japanese protesters and not due to the BN government, then led by former premier Mahathir Mohamad, which had approved the project.
Fast forward to 2012. Instead of learning the bitter lessons of past decades, the BN government now headed by Najib seems to be determined to reprise history. For sure, once the 13th general election is over and if the BN retains the federal government, the Lynas project will be bulldozed through.
Once again, it is up to the people of Malaysia to rise up before it is too late to put a stop to an act destined to harm this generation and those that come after it.