KUALA LUMPUR — July 19, 2019: The first time Malaysia exploited its rare earth minerals was in 1979 but it resulted in a disaster 13 years later.
The mining and processing of the rare earth feedstock in Bukit Merah, Perak, was believed to have caused poisoning among scores of residents at a nearby village, who suffered from leukemia and birth defects.
However, the government yesterday announced that it was planning to revive the rare earth mining industry which, ever since the Bukit Merah incident, became a hot-button topic in Malaysia.
A case in point, was -and still is- the fierce objection by some politicians in the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition over the operations of rare earth refiner, Lynas Corporation Ltd, in the country, which raw material was mined in Australia instead of this country.
This raise the question of whether Malaysia is ready to once again mine its rare earths minerals, which was estimated to be capable of generating an income of over RM700 billion for the country.
A fellow from the Academy of Sciences Malaysia, Professor Datuk Ahmad Ibrahim told The Mole today that such a venture is now possible.
Ahmad, a specialist in waste treatment and disposal, said the country now has the needed regulatory framework and guidelines to contain the risks posed by the rare earth mining industry.
|Comparison between Lynas and Asia Rare Earth’s regulatory framework as per to a Parliamentary Select Committee report in 2012|
|Asia Rare Earth Sdn. Bhd.||Lynas Malaysia Sdn. Bhd.|
|Plant location||Bukit Merah, Perak||Gebeng, Kuantan|
|Feedstock||Monazite from Beh Mineral in Bukit Merah||Lanthanide concentrate from Mt Weld, Australia|
AELB has not been set up then an AELA (1984) was not enacted.
Regulated under the radioactive Substances Act 1968 under MOH that does not cover the industry fully but more for regulating medical use
|AELB regulating the AELA (1984) and all Regulations and Orders made here under.|
|Operational control||Manual, pneumatic and mechanical||Computerised automated control system|
|Regulatory control||AELB routing inspection after enactment of AELA 1984||AELB routing inspection after enactment of AELA 1984|
(AELB is Atomic Energy Licensing Board; AELA is Atomic Energy Licensing Act 1984; MITI is Ministry of International Trade and Industry; DOE is the Department of Environment and MOH is the Ministry of Health)
“All the safety regulations are there but the implementation and enforcement of it are rather weak. It’s because our DOE does not have any enforcement power and that the outfit responsible in approving factories and plants is the local authority,” said Ahmad of USCI University.
He also highlighted the possible strategic advantage of Malaysia being a rare earth miner and refiner given the fact that Lynas is currently the only significant rare earth producer outside China, which is a crucial balancing factor in the ongoing trade war between United States and China.
“Our economy now is mainly dependant on oil and gas as well as palm oil. The former is depleting while the latter have no more lands available for expansion. We need new opportunities such as our rare earths. It’s ours and it’s safe.
“Automations, robots, the internet of things and industry 4.0, all these require rare earths. Even military equipment needs it nowadays. That is why the US was really scared when China wanted to stop supplying them rare earth,” Ahmad said.
While Ahmad was optimistic over the prospect of Malaysia establishing its own rare earth industry, criticisms over the said industry can still be heard, primarily from those of Pakatan Harapan.
On Sunday, DAP’s Bentong member of parliament Wong Tack, who is a fierce critic of the rare earth slammed the government for wanting to invest in the future of the industry, arguing that doing so will leave what he described as “a bigger toxic legacy“.
“If indeed the rare earth processing industry has such great economic potential, why are other countries outside of China not taking up this opportunity, especially major consumers like the US and Japan? The US has rich rare earth minerals deposits but yet they don’t have a rare earth refinery plant. Japan neither,” wrote Wong on Facebook.
However, contrary to Wong’s claim, a US company had, two months ago, signed a deal with Lynas to set up a rare earth processing facility in Texas.