KUANTAN – October 24, 2018: The sky was cloudy at the Balok estuary during a recent visit. The tide had receded and just a few metres away from its fish market, several fishermen were seen wading back and forth at a chest-deep spot in the river.
“Foraging for cockles?” asked 34-year-old fisherman, Muhd. Faisal Muhammad, as his small fishing boat cruised past the trio, who nodded. Faisal explained that the activity is one of the ways fishermen there pass their time ashore.
Like many others living there, the Balok river is an integral part of Faisal’s life and he too was initially worried about his livelihood when the river was slated to be the discharge point of treated waste-water from a rare-earth refining plant.
That was six years ago. Today Faisal believes otherwise.
“Years of fishing here and I have yet to hear anyone getting poisoned by our fishes, let alone see mutated fish,” he quipped in reference to the supposedly hazardous waste-water from the Lynas Corporation Ltd.’s plant.
Australian company Lynas first courted controversy in 2012 following its plan to set-up the plant in Gebeng. The anti-Lynas blowback back then was so intense to a point that its employees were shunned by a significant segment of the public.
Critics opposed Lynas as they were worried it could result in another rare-earth-related radioactive poisoning like what happened in Bukit Merah, Perak, in the 1990s. Leading the movement was the then opposition politicians.
Since it started operations in 2013, the plant had undergone two reviews by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the first in 2011 and another in 2014 where it was rated as intrinsically low risks. It is undergoing a third review by the government.
If Lynas really did discharge radioactive waste-water, all of us here would have been the first to die, said Kampung Balok head of fishermen Raja Haris Raja Salim, adding that he believed the protest was merely for political gains.
“It has been six years (since the plant started operating) the children are still bathing in the river and so far, there is no case of itchiness, let alone death. The most common cause of death in this river that I’ve heard is drowning,” he said.
The opinion he held stemmed from his involvement with regulatory bodies in charge of monitoring the safety level of Lynas’ treated waste-water that ended up in the river.
“I am the one in charge of transporting relevant parties like the Atomic Energy Agency, Ministry of International Trade and Industry, the Department of Chemistry and the Local Councils for sample collection of water from the river,” he said.
Apart from the waste-water, critics particularly Deputy Minister of Religious Affairs and Kuantan MP Fuziah Salleh had also cited Lynas’ residue, the water leached purification (WLP), as a radioactively dangerous compound.
That being said, those working at the plant argued that Fuziah’s claims over the dangers of WLP and Lynas’ entire operations do not hold water.
A supervisor in charge of solvent extraction, Hafiyan Hashim, said his and his family’s health has not been affected since he started working six years ago.
Hafiyan’s colleague, technician Wan Mustaza Wan Mustafa echoed a similar view about his health, adding that he has yet to hear news about any Lynas worker suffering from radiation poisoning.
Another staff, Tengku Nur Bazilah Tengku Azhar, even added that she has had two children since she started working at the plant and none has suffered mutation.