Commentary Local

Malaysia’s radioactive ruse: the stakes are high, the tactics desperate

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Zaidi Azmi
Written by Zaidi Azmi

November 15, 2018

KUANTAN: THE stakes are high for those entangled in the Lynas Corporation Ltd’s rare-earth refinery controversy and since time is of the essence, the tactics its detractors employed were nothing short of desperate.

The critics’ antics however, were not surprising as there are two more weeks left before the review committee wrap-up its investigations on the safeness of Lynas’ Gebeng-based refinery which started operations six years ago.

And if the Australian company earns a favorable verdict, such an outcome will speak volumes about the credibility or lack of it, of its critics given how those leading the fray are politicians from the ruling coalition.

The so-called “salesman of Lynas”

Against such a backdrop, it was not entirely shocking why Bentong MP, Wong Tack of DAP, accused Lynas of bribery after the six government outfits tasked to monitor its rare-earth refinery vindicated the company of hazardous practices, at the Sunday public hearing.

“I must congratulate the officers here for their good salesmanship of Lynas. How much fund was given by Lynas for all these research? I want to know if the AELB (Atomic Energy Licensing Board) receive research fund from Lynas.

“How could we have a regulator receive fund from a toxic operator,” was Wong’s acrid remark – aired during his turn to speak at the hearing- to the government officials who maintained that Lynas’ refinery is safe.

Lynas first courted controversy in 2011. Back then, critics claimed that the company’s by-products; the water leached purification (WLP), neutralisation underflow (NUF) and treated effluent, will turn Kuantan into a radioactive waste dumping ground.

While Wong offered no evidence to back such claim, one of his cohort, Tan Bun Teet from an anti-Lynas pressure group alluded that such was because the data he obtained from the refinery discharged effluent showed “contrasting result.”

“I collect water samples from a discharge point outside of Lynas’ plant once every three months. I then send it for lab testing and the result showed that the sample did not meet standard B (of permissable downstream effluent discharge),” said Tan.

The sample, he claimed, even contained dangerous levels of heavy metals, Thorium and Uranium but officials from Pahang’s Department of Environment (DOE) and AELB refuted the claim.

State DOE director Rosli Zul explained that the monthly effluent samples collected by department came from 11 checkpoints in which the first of several are within the refinery adding that Lynas’ treated effluents are safe to be discharged.

“In fact, these properly treated effluent had even improved the quality of water in the Balok river (where effluents from Lynas and every factories in the Gebeng Industrial Park ultimately ended up) from class 4 to class 3,” said Rosli.

As for the presence of Thorium and Uranium in Lynas’ effluent, AELB chief director Hamrah Mohd Ali pointed that the content of the two elements is within national permissible limit for radionuclides content.

“The average level of Uranium within Lynas’ effluent is at 0.078 Becquerels per litre (Bc/l). While the average of Thorium content is 0.03 Bc/l. Malaysia’s acceptable limit for such contents are set at 1 Bc/l,” expained Hamrah.

Fuziah’s peculiar take on sustainability

Besides Wong and Tan, Kuantan MP, Fuziah Salleh from PKR also made similar assertion, accusing the AELB of coming up with inefficient standards on businesses such as Lynas which she claimed contradicted the standards set by the United Nations (UN).

Fuziah was unhappy with the AELB’s stage-by-stage license requirement for Lynas’ wastes management framework in which the agency wanted the company to research ways to recycle and reuse its waste.

Failing which, Lynas must store the wastes in a permanent disposal facility (PDF) and if that too fails, the wastes must be returned  to Australia.

“In (UN’s) sustainability framework it should be returned to Australia, failing which, store it in PDF, failing which do research and development on it,” Fuziah claimed adding that the framework according to UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs).

Interestingly, a check on the said SDGs revealed that the UN did not outline Fuziah’s “sustainability framework”. In fact, when it comes to environmentally sound hazardous waste management the UN had even discouraged trans-boundary movement of hazardous waste.

Equally interesting was that the UN – in terms of waste management – also promotes a “fundamental shift in emphasis from remedial measures to preventive at source, reuse, recycling and recovery” which Lynas did when it discovered, in a pilot study, that its wastes can be used as a soil conditioner.

And when Fuziah was asked if the UN’s SGDs had explicitly stated her said “sustainable framework”,  the three-term Kuantan MP, who became famous after jumping into the anti-Lynas bandwagon in 2011, merely explained the definition of the SDGs.

Enter the Bukit Merah survivor

The animosity harboured by those of the anti-Lynas movement stemmed from a radioactive poisoning that happened in Bukit Merah, Perak, in the 90s, due to the mining and processing of rare-earths by a Japanese refinery.

And at the public hearing, those of the anti-Lynas movement had even brought a relative of the Bukit Merah victim. A woman by the name of Char Lai Fun.

Speaking through a translator, Char emotionally recounted how her younger brother was born with permanent disabilities following the one-year employment of her mother at the Japanese refinery.

“At that time the women there suffered from miscarriages. My younger brother was born frail and ill. He did not live long. He died at the age of 30. How would you feel if this happens to you?” said Char.

While her worry was warranted, an official from Pahang’s health department has pointed out that there were no increasing trends in respiratory illnesses, conjungtivitis, congenital deformity and spontaneous abortions implicating the people of Kuantan since Lynas started operations in 2012.

“On Thorium’s negative effects which can lead to bone, liver and lung cancers, we have yet to obtain any significant data because cancers take at least 10 years to develop but we will continue to monitor the trend of these diseases in Kuantan,” said the officer at the pubic hearing.

As for staffers’ newborns, Lynas CEO Amanda Lacaze had, last month, said that a total of 176 babies were born to their employees “and every single one of them is beautiful.”

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About the author

Zaidi Azmi

Zaidi Azmi

If Zaidi Azmi isn’t busy finding his way in the city, this 26-year-old northern kampung boy can be found struggling to make sense of the Malaysian political scene. Zaidi can be reached at [email protected]