Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Debate Over Gebeng - Transparency Issues

Following the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, we are all now more concerned with what is happening in Gebeng. First, we hear from the Minister in charge, followed by issues raised by some concern groups. My view is that we need more transparency, not just one study, its so important, why not have 3 independent globally recognised studies done, and then make the reports available publicly. Its very hard to take one side or the other without solid facts, whatever both sides say will be deemed as emotional and opinions only. I mean, we can all yell and ask Ongkili and his family (maybe include all those who agree readily that it is safe) to stay in Gebeng for 5 years. However, owing to the gravity of the issue, all Malaysians should err on the side of caution unless given solid evidence otherwise.


March 22, 2011

KUALA LUMPUR, March 22 — The government insisted today that the controversial RM700 million rare earth plant already under construction near Kuantan will not be a source of radiation pollution amid rising public concern over such a hazard.

“The plant will not be dangerous to the public. It is completely different from the Asian Rare Earth plant,” Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Datuk Seri Maximus Johnity Ongkili (picture) said, referring to the refinery in Bukit Merah that has been linked to at least eight leukemia cases with seven deaths after being shuttered in 1992.

Alarm in Japan over potential radiation leaks from nuclear plant explosions caused by the recent earthquake and tsunami, coupled with a recent New York Times report highlighting the radioactive waste produced in the rare earth refining process, has revived fears and debate on the issue.

Environmentalists and residents living near the factory site in the Gebeng industrial zone have raised questions over the potential environmental hazards arising from radioactive waste being produced and stored at the plant.

They have compared the plant being built by Australian miner Lynas to the Asian Rare Earth (ARE) plant in Bukit Merah that eventually closed down in 1992 after sustained public protests.

Nearly two decades later, the plant is still undergoing a RM303 million cleanup exercise.

Ongkili told Parliament today that the radiation level from the plant’s waste is considered low enough by international standards for the residue to be considered as industrial instead of radioactive waste.

“The level of radiation will be the same as background radiation,” the Kota Marudu MP said, repeating Lynas’ claim that the level of thorium, the radioactive element found in virtually all rare earth deposits, in its raw material was only two per cent of what was used by the ARE plant.

Ongkili added that the plant has to receive approval from at least five other agencies besides the Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB), which is responsible for issuing an operating licence, and the Department of Environment that approves the environmental impact assessment report.

“Lynas must also pass safety and health standards and ensure that there is no exposure to its workers,” he said in his winding-up speech to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong’s address, adding that the plant would be subject to constant monitoring and that the AELB would only issue an operating licence after Lynas had satisfied conditions for approval.

Lynas is hoping to begin operations in the Gebeng industrial zone by September, putting it on track to compete with China, which controls 95 per cent of the rare earth market.

It is anticipating a windfall of RM8 billion a year from 2013 onwards from the rare earth metals that are crucial to the manufacture of high-technology products such as smartphones, hybrid cars and bombs.

Ongkili also said that the plant would create downstream economic activities in response to Fuziah Salleh’s (PKR-Kuantan) query as to the plant’s benefit to the country given that Lynas has been given a 12-year tax holiday.

He said the plant would create RM2.3 billion in investment which will include RM300 million for two chemical plants that will produce the hydrochloric and sulphuric acid needed in the refinery process.

Fuziah also asked if the government had used Australian or Chinese standards for radioactive waste management.

“We know China is not as stringent and prior to locating their plant in Kuantan, Lynas had first applied in Terengganu using the standards from China,” she said.

Ongkili replied that it had used Australian standards and that a report from a UK-based ecotoxicological lab had found that the plant would not be dangerous to the surrounding area.

The minister said that most countries had shied away from rare earth processing for the past 30 years due to the environmental hazard only because the technology to ensure that the radiation would be contained was not yet available then.


Save Kuantan

As you all in Kuantan already know, Lynas Corporation from Australia is going to open the world's largest Rare Earth processing plant in Kuantan. Rare Earth processing plants are notorious for leaving behind radioactive waste / by-products which contains Thorium - something they say is slightly radioactive, but slightly doesn't mean it's safe, especially the significant amount (22,000 tonnes per year) they will be dealing with at this "largest plant" in the world. In fact this has happened in our country before at Bukit Merah, Perak which is crowned the "LARGEST radioactive waste site in Asia", and due to serious health issues (Cancers, birth defects etc) & pressure from local residents the mine was finally forced to close in 1992 but the secretive $100 million radiation cleanup is still going on until today, quietly not to cause any panic.

The Kuantan plant will be the first of such dangerous plant built outside China in the past 30 years! NO other country in this world is willing to allow this sort of plant to be build in their land. Is Malaysia that desperate??? Even in China, the largest of such plant is located in Inner Mongolia, far away from major cities. The Kuantan plant is in Gebeng, only 25 km away. The Kuantan plant is in the final stages of construction and is planned to start operation somewhere between July-Sep 2011.

We certainly do not need another contaminated town /toxic dumpsite but if nothing is done about it - Kuantan will be a disaster waiting to happen. Increased low level background radiation aside, possibility of radiation slowly seeping into the air, rivers, sea water & the fishes you eat aside, if an accident / fire / natural disaster ever hit the plant, of it the container ship ever sinks it will be a major tragedy for all people living around the area. The Tsunami in Japan today re-validates this strong point, with major oil refineries caught on fire & nuclear power stations on emergency shutdown fearing radiation leakage caused by damages from the Tsunami hit. Oh, and if they don't store the waste, they are considering plans to recycle the radioactive waste to be converted into materials used for building roads. Either way, good luck!

Don't believe if they tell you that no radiation will be released into the air or water. Maybe not significant amount but certainly not 100% zero, especially when accumulated over time. Thorium has a half-life of 14.05 billion years, which means it emits radiation forever. What the plant will be processing is rare earth dug up from underground, not sure how much dust will be generated in the factory / released into the environment / how much close contact the workers will have with the rare earth dust during processing. What we do know is that the plant will release waste water (equivalent to 3 olympic sized swimming pool) back into the surrounding rivers EVERY DAY. They say the waste water fill be filtered / decontaminated and also the surrounding air monitored for radiation. But who does the reading & monitoring? Someone from Lynas? Someone from the government? Do you trust their readings with your life?

The only people you can trust are "independent" environmental scientists hired by the Kuantan community itself. Best to do a baseline radiation reading now BEFORE they start operating, then continue measuring the levels periodically and properly document all results. (If the radiation readings does go up over time then this can be a very powerful evidence to use for future complaints / negotiations / even court cases).

Now the golden question why Malaysia and why Kuantan. There is no way Lynas would be allowed to open this sort of processing plant in Australia, they probably would spend the next 5 years waiting for it to be debated in parliament. So naturally the next best choice is China since it's the "only" Country in the world to be processing Rare Earth at the moment. So Lynas originally applied to open the processing plant in China but China imposed all sorts of restrictions & taxation on them (so as to protect their local industry).

So Lynas had to look around for any other countries willing to allow them to built the plant there. Remember this, NO one else want this kind of dirty work in their country. No one until recently Malaysia, possibly too desperate for foreign investment to a point where the government offered Lynas Corp 12 YEARS TAX EXEMPTION for opening this dirty plant in Kuantan! YES 12 YEARS TAX FREE for dumping toxic waste in our land!

And do you know they originally wanted to open the plant in Terengganu but was totally rejected by PAS due to concerns of the people's health & safety there? Makes you wonder how much the politicians in Kuantan actually cares for the people who voted for them. Oh, and the 2 MCA reps who got a free tour of the mining site in Australia back in 2009 (hosted by Lynas of course) and they came back from the trip all smiling and giving the all OK it is absolutely safe, nothing to worry about. So many people in the internet forums have challenged these 2 MCA reps to move their family to Gebeng next to the factory since they claim it's totally safe. So far no answer from them.

Maybe the politicians are thinking it will benefit the local community? What benefit? The gigantic plant only creates 350 jobs (for those who's willing to work in there), and we're NOT charging Lynas any TAX at all for doing the dirtiest work in our land, not for the next 12 YEARS!!! If the Government is not collecting any tax for this huge operation than how is this all gonna benefit the local community???? The profit from the business entity is not public spending money one would imagine.

This might just be a start. Kuantan has recently been designated as Malaysia's first Special Economy Zone (complete with tax exemptions, import and export duties exemptions etc.), all designed to attract super heavy (and sometimes questionable) industries like Lynas to setup plants in the area especially Gebeng & Pekan. The main concern with this tax free bring in whatever approach will attract more and more high environmental risk industries such as Lynas, Toxic Chemical plants, high polluting industries, basically anything that will have trouble opening / operating in developed countries. Also remember first choice for western companies to setup any manufacturing plants will be China. Malaysia can never beat China in terms of cost tax free or not and it's only when China rejects then only we get the leftovers (or riskier ones) like Lynas. And if the local politicians continue to have their way who knows one day Kuantan may even be used as toxic waste dump site for heavy metals, toxic chemicals or radioactive waste coming from developed countries.

But here is something more scary to think about the "possibility" of Kuantan's future. It is already clearly mentioned in the news that Malaysia is planning for Nuclear Power Plants. And remember the waste element generated by the Lynas plant, Thorium? Well it appears that the next generation Nuclear Power Plants being developed runs on Thorium (google it). If you put the 2 together, doesn't it make sense for the government to build Malaysia's first Nuclear Power Plant near the Thorium source, in Gebeng? Scary thought for Kuantan's future isn't it?

Lynas can say they have all the strictest safety policies & procedures in place, but the plant will mostly be operated by local Malaysian (famous for tidak-apa attitude & not the best work ethics in the world). Lynas need to understand that Malaysia is different from Australia in the sense there is not a strong occupational health & safety culture / it's loosely enforced. Unlike Australia where they take health & safety and environmental issues extremely seriously to a point every business is so scared of being fined or sued for the silliest little things. In Malaysia things may be a little more "loose" at times. Malaysian workers sometimes do not follow the rules by the book 100%. A tiny mistake or slacking or someone forgetting a tiny procedure may end up in disaster, especially in dangerous plants like this.

Plus in one of the video news reports below, somewhere it mentioned that it only took MPK (the city council) 1 day to approve this hi-risk mega project. Makes you wonder how much feasibility study, environmental impact & community safety evaluation was done. Or they just based their decision on whatever paperwork Lynas supplied them?

Another key concern is that Lynas in Australia even though a public listed company, is considered small compared to the real big miners like BHP & Rio Tinto. Lynas has been a mining exploration company and this is only their first real mining campaign. In other words they are NOT an experienced mining company with several mega mining projects running around the world. If this is their first real life mining production project, we better hope nothing will go wrong in their first ever processing plant in Kuantan. What's worst they are losing money. Lynas Corporation reported negative cash flow of $23.91m for quarter ended 30 June 2010, possibly because they haven't started making any money.

And their dream is to challenge China who already monopolised the Rare Earth industry globally. I guess the point with all this economic data is that IF the business doesn't work out and the plant in Kuantan needs to be closed down, or they decide to move the plant to another even cheaper country then good luck with cleaning up the radioactive waste. Japan's Mitsubishi Chemicals spent $100million decontaminating Bukit Merah plant, not too sure what sort of obligations Lynas has if they go bankrupt / change focus into mining something else.

It would also be a good idea to work with others who are already fighting the case, help educate the public and gather more support from the general population in Kuantan (who mostly may not be as well informed / educated or just plain ignorant). Once there is enough people from the population supporting the cause, everyone can sign a formal petition to the Malaysian Government, Lynas Corp and even the Australian Green Party (who I believe is being contacted by Kuantan MP Fuziah Salleh to help pressure Lynas Corp).

It is good that the international media is already providing a lot of coverage on this issue and if the signed petition is made known to the media internationally it will be made very very public and it will be much harder for the parties involved to not seriously consider the local residents' petition. Lynas Corp for one will need to be very careful when handling such a public issue as they are a public listed company and the last thing they want after they start operation is for every single cancer / birth defect case in Kuantan after that to be a lawsuit for compensation. Open long-winded public lawsuits like that can't be good for their brand & business and definitely won't be good for their share prices. As for the local state government in Kuantan, the last thing they want is to lose power in the next election so if enough people in Kuantan sign the petition, they will probably think twice before making any further decisions which will make them very unpopular.

Here are some key people already campaigning hard for Kuantan and they really need more support:
Kuantan MP Fuziah Salleh
Dr. Jayabalan A. Thambyappa (experienced in the Bukit Merah case)


Kris said...

Thanks for the highlight Dali.

I remember seeing a Chinese language documentary about the radioactive problem at Bukit Merah.

They are having alot of health issues and their children are deformed at birth due to the radiation.

Unfortunately, the documentary was not in Bahasa Melayu or English, if it was then alot of people will know about the super duper high risk.

I suggest the Kuantan people start to document radiation levels before the start progress. If there is any cancer incident increasing, unleashed the lawyers.

mapsscom said...

unfortunately,silly malaysians in kuantan wud vote bn again for a mere rm1.00.when will malaysians ever learned?

Marco said...

The Health Ministry shall expand the Kuantan General Hospital inline with the expected increase of cancer patients due to the radioactive exposure.

The tourlism industry will be affected as well while we shall expect 10-20% of the middle-upper class residents to move out from Kuantan as well.

Allowing Lynas to build a rare earth processing plant is a lose-lose decision to the country and people, the gaining party is only Lynas.

Read link below:
How to stop rare earth processing plant in Malaysia.

William said...

Such thing can only happen in BN controlled areas. To start, such voters are too ignorant to vote in the government based on short term benefits. Being synonymous, these voters cannot see beyond their immediate future.

amada said...

Radioactive radiation causes serious health effects on the human body and ultimately result in cancer. The key issue here is whether the authorities had performed professional due diligence in risk assessment and whether the risk assessment covers the entire transport of rare earth from ships up to the plant location and potential health hazards on the workers, factory surroundings and the environment. By and large the Malaysian population is extremely ignorant on the effects of Radioactive radiation on humans and on the environment and consequently are unaware of the serious health hazards that it poses. Being ignorant now does not equate to being ignorant in the future and therein lies the opportunity for the people in Kuantan to be aware of and communicate on what is best for their welfare.

PH Chin said...

Excellent article !

It seems the only choice left now for the Kuantan and Kemaman folks is to keep on pressuring the government from issuing the operating license for the Lynas plant.

Let's make every signatory on the petition a reality NOW !