KUANTAN – January 31, 2020: The two rows of teak trees at Zainuddin Kassim’s small farm in Sungai Ular, Cherating, were planted together three years ago but some have bigger trunks than the others.
When asked why, the 67-year-old farmer lightly dug the pale brown sandy earth next to one of the bigger trees, revealing a layer of black loamy soil underneath.
“This ‘baja hitam’ (black fertiliser) is really something. It’s different from other chemical fertilisers. I used it three years ago and some of it are still there in the ground till today,” he explained endearingly.
Contrary to the term used by Zainuddin to describe it, the black soil is not a fertiliser.
It is actually a soil conditioner called CondiSoil that is fashioned from the residues of rare-earth refining by Lynas Corporation, known as water-leached purification (WLP) and neutralised underflow (NUF).
To the unfamiliar, rare-earth is essential input for all modern gadgets as well as technologies and Lynas is its largest producer outside of China.
Lynas faced operational uncertainty after May 2018 due to mainly renewed criticisms of its WLP and NUF waste disposal processes and it was only on August 15 last year that the government conditionally extended its operating licence for another six months.
Zainuddin’s farm was one of several pilot study sites for an obligatory research and development on recycling wastes which Lynas needed to do since it’s refining plant in Gebeng here started operations in 2012.
“Some say these residues are poisonous… I think they’re lying. None of the crops I planted during the pilot study died. It’s the opposite. I got great yields, especially the maize that I grew. They were very big,” he said.
Apart from the relocation of Lynas’ cracking and leaching operations, the government had also directed the company to cease any RnD activity on CondiSoil. The government, however, did not explain the rationale for the latter directive.
The pilot study’s project specialist, Aizul Azfar Zulkeefli, feels it was unfortunate that the government had issued such a verdict on CondiSoil as it was not only good for plants but also can rehabilitate infertile soil.
“We have tested it on very acidic soil in Kedah and Penang. CondiSoil was able to alter the pH level of the soil to a level that was more hospitable for paddy. In areas with sandy earth, CondiSoil acted as a nutrient and water retainer for crops.
“The researchers from UKM (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia) have tested CondiSoil’s effect on the environment and it was discovered that the crops’ uptake of heavy metals and radioactivity was way below any dangerous limit,” Aizul explained.
The study was done with several government outfits including the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute, the National Kenaf and Tobacco Board as well as Universiti Putra Malaysia.
The result of the pilot test among others suggested that the commercialisation of CondiSoil may reduce costs and reliance on imported fertilisers.
Malaysia imports most of its fertilisers and according to the Department of Statistics, the country imported 357,531 tonnes of fertilisers containing rock phosphate in 2018 for about RM115 million.
In May last year, Lynas pointed out that its WLP residue has phosphate in it, and therefore could serve as an alternative for imported phosphate.
“Even the imported iron phosphate has naturally-occurring-radioactivity which is of low level, such as the CondiSoil,” said Aizul.