Home 2011: 8 Lynas: A colossal catastrophe waiting to happen

Lynas: A colossal catastrophe waiting to happen

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M N D’Cruz raises the alarm over the Lynas rare earth refinery near Kuantan and says it is the duty of every Pahang resident to oppose the plant.

M N D'Cruz

I am writing this as a concerned citizen, living in Kuantan for the past 60-odd years. My concern is not about my personal safety or health, as I am well into my eighties and the call may come anytime, sooner rather than later. May I also add that I have no political agenda in this matter and I am not a member of any political party, BN or Opposition.

But my real concern is about the safety and health of generations of our children to come, as well as the expanding population that has to work, live and perhaps die in the vicinity of the proposed plant. This vicinity includes Kuantan Town, Beserah, Batu Hitam, Jabor, Balok, Sungei Karang, Cherating and other settlements along the coast, right up to Kemaman and may be further on into the neighbouring state of Terengganu.

Most of these villages are well populated and growing. The proponents of this project and those in the authority of the state/Federal Governments now have a solemn duty to ensure the health and safety of the people in these regions for generations to come. But I am really concerned that whatever assurance they may give verbally or in writing may not hold good for ever. Nobody, except God, can predict natural disasters like volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, tidal waves and floods, which may strike anytime.

I am sure those who built the plants in the Three Mile Island in USA (1979), Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011) had taken utmost precautions to prevent disasters and yet they happened. Thousands of people died in these disasters and thousands more are still suffering the after-effects of these disasters. Do we want to have a similar situation in this country?

The biggest question is ‘Why do we want this plant in Gebeng or for that matter anywhere in Malaysia’?

Are we so hard-up for FDI that we are prepared to accept a backyard industry, rejected in its own country? Western Australia has all the required facilities, viz. less populated region, accessibility to seawater and port, good transport system and infrastructure.

So why do they want to come to Gebeng to do this job?

According to Datuk Seri Adnan Yaakob, “the state government did not approve the project and it had no power to stop it…”

“When Lynas first proposed the project, International Trade and Industry Ministry had given the project to Terengganu . However, due to delays (or rejection by Terengganu?) the Ministry asked us to consider having the plant in Gebeng” (Press report, 20 April 2011).

Does it mean the state government has no power to refuse permission for the plant to be built in Gebeng? Land usage is a state matter and the state should have the last say in such matters. So it is surprising to note the Ministry of International Trade and Industry has forced the Lynas Gebeng Project, down the state’s throat.

“Atomic Board has limited jurisdiction” (press report).

Does it mean that in matters outside its jurisdiction, it can wash its hands and put the blame on other agencies like the Malaysian Nuclear Agency, the Department of Environment and even the State Development Corporation?

“A full operational licence will not be issued if Lynas does not meet the requirements that have been set” (press report, 23 April 2011).

So, if the requirements are not met with, will the RM700 million Lynas plant under construction now become a white elephant?

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“Lynas, which hopes to begin operation in September 2011, expects to bring in RM8 billion a year from 2013 that too tax-free, based on current prices.”

Who are the real beneficiaries of the RM8bn a year income – the state government, Lynas Australia, the federal government, Lynas (M) Sdn Bhd?

I understand there is LYNAS (M) Sdn Bhd in existence.

Who are the directors, shareholders and stakeholders of this company?

It has been reported that a delegation of state exco reps visited the Lynas headquarters in Australia.

Who sponsored their visit? Did they see any plant in operation there? What technical or scientific expertise did the members of the delegation have to do an objective study of the pros and cons of operating such a plant? Who paid for their expenses? – Lynas or the state government?

The raw-material is to be imported from Lynas Australia.

Why bring the raw-materials from Australia, when it could safely be processed there? Is it because the 41 safety and health regulations by the Australian government are more stringent than whatever conditions we may impose in Malaysia?

According to some experts the ‘public is already exposed to naturally occurring and ionising radiation. Do we need an extra dose of radiation?

The finished products will be taken back to Australia but the ‘tailings’ will be ‘safely’ left behind in Gebeng.

Why should we hold on to this toxic waste for many, many years, even if they are deposited underground?

Isn’t it true that there is no ‘safe’ level of radiation, as far as its effects on the health of the people is concerned? (Letter to the Press by Mr David K C Quek dated 27 May 2011).

Do we want a repeat of Bukit Merah, Perak, where the Japanese Company which ran the rare-earth plant is spending RM300m to do the clean-up and even after more than 25 years, they have not succeeded in cleaning up, leaving behind those with birth defects and eight leukemia cases – seven have since died (New York Times, 8 March 2011)

“Chinese farmers in China pay the price for rare-earth addictive” (press report).

According to this report, peasant farmers living near the dumping ground for rare-earth waste in Dalahai have –”lost their teeth”, “lost their hair”, “eat contaminated food”, and “destroyed their crops”. Do we want any such disaster to strike us? Do we want our future generations to blame us for their sufferings?

“Lynas report will take time” (press report 27 April 2011).

“The Panel tasked with reviewing the health and safety aspects of Lynas (M) Sdn Bhd is expected to present its report within a year.” (Datuk Fadillah Yusof, Deputy Science, Technology and Innovation Minister). In the same newspaper International Trade and Industry Minister Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed is reported to have stated “the Panel would complete the task in a month”. Whom are we to believe?

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In the same report it was stated “An EIA was approved by the Pahang Department of Environment on 15 February 2008 and was carried out according to the highest standard”.

(i) Who were those experts involved in carrying out ‘the assessment according to the highest standards’;
(ii) If the EIA was approved in February 2008, why did the authorities keep it under wraps and only now (23 May 2011) bring it out for public display at a few selected places?

That too, after an article in the New York Times dated 8 March 2011 exposed the inherent toxic effects on the safety and health of the people living around this huge complex built over 50ha of land. It is in the interest of the real stakeholders, viz. the ordinary citizens of Kuantan, that the authorities concerned provide truthful answers to points raised in this article.

As early as 21 May 2011, Lynas Ltd (Australia) issued a statement that all necessary safety measures had been undertaken.

Was it meant to pre-empt the findings of the then newly appointed international panel of experts?

Lynas review panel must be reformed (press report 23 May 2011).

En S M Mohamed Idris and the organisations he represents – Consumers Association of Penang and Sahabat Alam Malaysia – are internationally known and well-respected entities. We can ill-afford to ignore his comments. The state and federal authorities should address his comments since the review involves environment, public health, radiation and safety issues……. They are not independent as made out to be. Four (plus one) of the nine panel members are staff of the IAEA.

Lynas: It is safe to transport rare-earth (press report, 23 May 2011).

If rare-earth is so safe as claimed by Lynas, Australia, why bring it to Gebeng, where the people have no need for its final product or the tailings. Why not keep it in Australia and enjoy all the benefits it may bring? “Charity begins at home.”

Petition signed by 52000 residents protesting the building of the plant

It has been reported that a petition containing 52,000 signatures of the people expressing their concern and protesting against the Lynas Gebeng Plant, which the Kuantan Member of Parliament YB Fuziah Salleh tried to submit to the panel, was rejected on the grounds that it was ‘immaterial’.

Local Agenda 21 clearly states that for any sustainable development to take place, people must be consulted and must participate in decision making that is related to the development. Yet the Panel blatantly refused even to accept it for its consideration /deliberation – (press report, 31 May 2011). No one knows why.

The demonstrations at Hotel Hyatt, Kuantan on two days

This could best be described as hooliganism by highly emotional and impressionable youths of a particular political party, with a political agenda orchestrated by interested parties, bent on getting the plant operated, at any cost. It is easy to identify the youths by their behaviour in blocking opposition Members of Parliament and State Assembly members from entering the hotel.

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An MCA youth was roughed up, camera crew from the press handled roughly and threateningly, while the security force available failed miserably to control the situation.

The Chairman of the Pro-Term Committee of ‘Save Malaysia, Stop Lynas’ resigned because of outside pressure, which he felt was threatening his safety and that of his family. The Vice-Chairman decided to skip Lynas meetings because he too feared for his personal safely (press report 1 June 2011).

Suspending the construction in Gebeng

It is hoped the assurances given by the Minister of International Trade and Industry and also voiced by the panel is being translated at the ground level. It is hard to imagine how nearly 2,000 construction workers of all grades working feverishly could be laid-off temporarily for an indefinite period.

Site visit by Panel Members

It is remarkable for the Panel Members to have completed the site visit of the sprawling construction site in less than two hours. If their aim was to study the safety aspects of the factory being constructed, nothing much could have been achieved. Yet let us hope for the best.

The very fact even the press was denied entry to accompany the panel members raises further concern about the safety aspects of the plant. And once in operation, what’s going on inside would be anyone’s guess.

The input given to the Panel by Lynas officials and government department representatives are certain to be biased towards the proponents of the project and therefore may not be objective.

Why should Lynas want the plant in Gebeng?

An article by Azmi Sharom (press report, 2 June 2011) highlighted various reasons as to why Lynas Australia wants the biggest rare-earth plant in the world (outside China) to be built in Gebeng and not in their own country. As the whole issue concerns the safety and health of thousands of people living in the vicinity of the plant, there should be full and open disclosure of all the facts regarding the safety and health of the people. Unfortunately, so far this has not been done.

Finally, I strongly feel it is the duty of every concerned citizen of Pahang, especially those living in Kuantan, irrespective of race, religion or political affiliation to join hands as a united force and struggle to stop Lynas from operating this rare-earth processing plant in Gebeng. We owe this to future generations of our children and grandchildren, whose health and safety are at risk.

It is also my fervent hope and prayer that politicians and political parties will not highjack the Lynas issue for their own political agenda. Save Malaysia, Stop Lynas!

After 30 years of service with the Ministry of Education, D’Cruz has written a host of books on Malaysian labour law. He was a member of the Panel of the Industrial Court Malaysia from 1973 to 1989.

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