KUANTAN – April 26, 2018: If the claim that it would end up being a dumping ground of highly radioactive waste was true, every living thing within the vicinity of the Balok river in Gebeng here would have grotesquely mutated by now but fortunately for people here that hasn’t happened.
“Seven years have passed since they protested against the factory but so far none of us has died due to radioactive illnesses,” said former fisherman Kamarun Azhar. “I had a child last year and she has turned out fine.”
Kamarun was referring to the infamous Green Assembly (GA) protest in 2012, during which protestors demanded the closure of Lynas Corporation Ltd.’s rare-earth metals refinery plant for fear of radioactive contamination.
To the unfamiliar, rare-earth metals are chemical compounds crucial in the manufacturing of many hi-tech products such as televisions and computer screens, cameras, telescope lenses and computer hard drives.
Despite its name, rare-earth metals can be found abundantly in the Earth’s crust but most are generally hazardous to extract due to their radioactive nature, which was the main reason the GA wanted the government to close down the plant.
While GA’s ‘Save Malaysia! Stop Lynas!’ movement started as an environmental crusade, critics said it was quickly tainted with political undertones following the participation of opposition politicians such as then PAS deputy president Mohamad Sabu and DAP senior citizen Lim Kit Siang.
Even more telling was when GA’s founder Wong Tack was fielded as a DAP candidate for the Bentong parliamentary seat in 2013 where he lost to MCA president Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai.
Throughout the protest, Wong and other members of GA consistently harped on how those in Kuantan would succumb to a variety of radioactive illnesses and possible genetic mutations if the plant was allowed to operate.
Lynas however constantly assured the public that its plant was properly equipped with high-tech features to safeguard them from any radioactive emission.
GA even came out with a five-minute video claiming that Lynas would dump 500 tonnes of radioactive treated water per hour into the Balok river which will allegedly harm not only the mangrove trees but also the fishermen downstream.
However, via a short trip by a small boat, one could observe that there were neither visible signs of mangrove trees dying along the stretch of the river nor was there any peculiar physical mutations forming on the fishermen’s catches.
This was so despite the fact that the plant has been producing over 11,000 tonnes of rare-earth oxides per annum since it started a year after the GA protest.
Fishermen Raja Hamas Raja Harith, who sells his catches at a nearby market at the Belok estuary, told of how he has yet to catch any mutant fishes or misshapen squids since the protest.
His fishermen friends nodded in agreement, with some adding that the ruckus back then was due to a misunderstanding which was furthered aggravated by the opposition in order to score some brownie points.
“The department of environment will take water samples from 12 checkpoints along the river every month and so far they told us that we have nothing to fear,” said another fisherman, Ilyas Isa.