Why are Malaysians living in the dark?

by Gan Pei Ling / 12 November 2012 © The Nut Graph

FROM laptops, smart phones to digital cameras, middle class youth in the Klang Valley these days usually own a few electronic gadgets. It is taken for granted that there will be 24-hour electricity supply to power these devices. But in a remote Penan village in Upper Baram, Sarawak, 1Malaysia laptops given by the government to students have been left idle due to a lack of power supply in the settlement.

1malaysia-laptopHollie Tu, a community organiser with Koperasi Pelancongan Penan Selungo Baram Berhad, says it demonstrates how the Malaysian government is out of touch with the living reality of rural students. “What’s the use of having a laptop when you don’t have electricity?” Tu said in exasperation when met at the Rainforest Discovery Centre at Sepilok, Sabah on 31 Oct 2012.

What’s the use, indeed? Who else is suffering from a lack of electricity in rapidly developing Malaysia and what can the government do about it?

No electricity in Ampang…

Colin Nicholas

Colin Nicholas

It’s not just the Penan in Sarawak’s interiors that don’t have electricity. Official 2010 statistics show that more than one third of Orang Asli villages in Peninsular Malaysia are still without electricity supply, said Dr Colin Nicholas from the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns. Villagers often make do with kerosene lamps or candles at night. Only those better off can afford generators.

One classic case is Kampung Orang Asli Kemensah, which sits among affluent neighbourhoods in Ampang but still has no power supply till this day. Despite having their plight highlighted in newspapers since 2007, Nicholas said national utility company Tenaga Nasional Bhd just started pulling in the wires to connect the indigenous village to the grid a few months ago.

If an indigenous village located less than 30-minutes drive from our capital can be so conveniently forgotten from “development”, what will the government do for villages far in the interior?

Nicholas said the government tried to install solar panels in remote Orang Asli villages but most of these solar electrification projects failed due to poor maintenance. He pointed out that the panels and batteries require a lot of maintenance and the government did not teach the communities to maintain them.

“The government had also spent millions to install water filtration systems [to provide clean water] to villages but most couldn’t work because there is no electricity to power the pump,” said the academic-activist, speaking at the first Southeast Asia Renewable Energy People’s Assemblya gathering of community-based renewable energy system producers across the region.

…and in Sabah

Over in Sabah, although nearly 80% of its population has 24-hour electricity supply, in its poorest district of Pensiangan, three quarters of the population have no electricity.

Adrian Lasimbang is one of the key figures helping the off-grid communities set up their own small-scale hydro systems. The trained engineer from Sabah set up Tonibung (Friends of Village Development) in 1991 which helps rural indigenous communities produce their own electricity. Tonibung installed the first pico-hydro for an indigenous village in 1999. (Pico-hydro produces less than 5kW of power while micro-hydro can generate between 5kW to 100kW of electricity.)

“Only 10% of our work involves engineering. The bulk of our time is spent getting the locals involved before the start of the project and training them to sustain the hydro system post-project,” said Lasimbang.

His organisation has helped install 15 pico- or micro-hydro systems in his home state, Sarawak and, over the past few years, in Peninsular Malaysia as well. Lasimbang noted that such small-scale hydro schemes’ impact on the environment is minimal compared to mega dams.

From the youth to the elderly, everyone gets involved in setting up the micro-hydro system for the Murut community in Kg Babalitan (© Adrian Lasimbang | Micro Hydro in Borneo)

However, Tonibung and the local communities have had to rely on foreign aid and corporations to fund their projects as they have found it difficult to source for local funding. It is disappointing that our government doesn’t seem interested in financing these small-scale and affordable renewable energy projects which provide a basic need to rural communities.

Democratising energy production

Instead, the Malaysian government tends to favour large-scale, centralised energy production projects. From the Bakun dam and the 12 proposed mega dams in Sarawak to the scrapped Sabah coal plant, local environmentalists have their fair share of controversial mega projects to protest against.

No doubt it is more energy- and cost-efficient to centralise power supply when electrifying urban areas where populations are concentrated. But the same power distribution model becomes inefficient and costly when applied to rural populations where communities are spread out. That’s why many indigenous communities in Malaysia remain off-the-grid.

lightbulbwaterClearly, our government urgently needs to develop a decentralised energy production strategy for its off-grid communities. Unfortunately, the Renewable Energy Act 2011 does not provide any support for the deployment of small-scale energy projects in these communities. The legislation favours urban consumers and existing corporate power producers.

Power is a basic amenity, not a luxury, for our off-grid communities, and should be treated as such. Often poverty-stricken, these communities need and deserve more government aid to secure energy and clean water supply to achieve a better quality of life. Instead of free laptops and one-off handouts, the government should instead focus on long-term benefits such as ensuring that all Malaysians receive the basic need of electricity. 

Gan Pei Ling thinks the budget allocated for smart phone rebate in 2013 should instead be used to fund small-scale renewable energy projects in off-grid villages. Certainly urban youths can learn to live without smart phones while some of their counterparts are having to make do with kerosene lamps.

Can local govt elections protect public interest and the environment?

by Gan Pei Ling / 24 September 2012 © The Nut Graph

THREE weeks ago, 10,000 protesters rallied against a gold mine in Raub, Pahang. Separately, indigenous people from Sarawak submitted a petition to the state’s chief minister to oppose the Baram dam on 19 Sept 2012. The next day, activists protested in front of rare earth miner Lynas Corp‘s headquarters in Sydney.

From Pahang to Sarawak, local environmental activists are capitalising on the window before the 13th general election, which must be called by June 2013, to highlight their causes. This weekend, another rally is being planned against a multi-billion ringgit petrochemical project at Pengerang, Johor.

The main entrance to Raub Australia Gold Mine Sdn Bhd was barred with razor wire on 2 Sept 2012 (All pix by Gan Pei Ling)

The main entrance to Raub Australia Gold Mine Sdn Bhd was barred with razor wire on 2 Sept 2012 (All pix by Gan Pei Ling)

The rise of environmental activism in Malaysia was highlighted in an article in The New York Times. It is unlikely the Malaysian government would be flattered with such coverage. But what could it have done to prevent these protests? What could it have done to secure better public buy-in?

Navigating public consent

One common grouse between the local communities in Raub, Kuantan, Baram and Pengerang is the feeling that they were not properly consulted and informed about a project’s environmental, health and social impact prior to the projects’ approval.

Villagers in Bukit Koman, for instance, did not know that the Department of Environment (DOE) had given the green light to the Raub Australian Gold Mining Sdn Bhd in 1997. The factory, which uses cyanide to process the ore, is located right next to the Chinese New Village. But the locals only found out about it in 2006 and only got hold of the Preliminary Environmental Impact Assessment (PEIA) report in 2007.

The villagers filed for a judicial review in 2008 only to have their case thrown out by the High Court in 2009, again by the Court of Appeal in 2011, and most recently by the Federal Court on 6 Sept 2012. The grounds of rejection was that they should have launched court action within 40 days of having knowledge of the PEIA approval. But as policy adviser Yin Shao Loong rightly pointed out in an opinion piece, the residents would have needed more time to look for the help of sympathetic experts to understand the technical report and the project’s impact.

In the case of the rare earth refinery in Gebeng, Kuantan, local residents were also not consulted about the project. The miner was only required to carry out a PEIA instead of a detailed environmental impact assessment (DEIA). The key difference is that the public is able to scrutinise and provide feedback on a DEIA report before the DOE decides to approve or reject it.

Environmentalists have complained before that their views were not taken into account and that flawed DEIA reports have been approved. But I think the public feedback process remains crucial as it allows public access to the documents. It has enabled activists to highlight major gaps in the DEIA to the media, and to further raise public awareness about a project’s problems.

An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people attended the peaceful rally against the gold mine.

An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people attended the peaceful rally against the gold mine.

Yin also proposed that consultants be hired by the DOE via a blind fund financed by various developers to carry out DEIAs. Developers should not hire consultants directly, as is the practice now, to prevent a conflict of interest. I second this proposal because the financial independence of consultants would likely increase public faith in the DEIA process.

The case for autonomous local governments

I have wondered if the local authorities of Gebeng, Raub or Pengerang willingly gave planning approval to the developers. If our local governments were truly autonomous, local councillors could have blocked projects deemed to be against public interest.

In Japan, 73 current and retired mayors spoke out against the federal government’s plan to restart two nuclear reactors. The Japanese government reactivated one nuclear reactor on 1 July 2012 despite public protests. But what struck me more was that the elected local officials dared to go against their federal counterparts. Now that is a functioning democracy.

Back in Malaysia, were the local authorities properly briefed about the gold mine in Raub or the petrochemical complex in Pengerang? Or were they pressured to issue the planning approval regardless of their concerns over the environmental and public health impact?

The ultimate aim of development is to improve the people’s lives. But no project should be shoved down people’s throats if the communities affected are staunchly against it. If we could bring back local government elections, councillors could at least be held accountable for giving the nod to the projects without the communities’ knowledge and approval.

Youths at the rally

Youths at the rally

Some may argue that it would be chaos if local governments started blocking state and federal development plans. I beg to disagree. If a development project does bring prosperity and better quality of life to the rakyat, a responsible elected government, at any level, would not want to risk public outrage to sabotage it.

Gan Pei Ling thinks much more needs to and can be done to improve environmental governance in Malaysia.

From dumpsites to nature sanctuaries

by Gan Pei Ling / 16 July 2012 © The Nut Graph

THINK of a landfill. What comes to mind? First thing – probably the stink. Toxic leachate seeping out and contaminating waterways. Now, imagine a landfill so clean that people have picnics and take nature walks there. Impossible? Think again.

On a recent visit to Singapore after covering an international conference for National Geographic‘s energy blog, I visited the Republic’s only landfill. Located 30km from the  mainland, the Semakau landfill began in 1999 and has become a nature haven for bird-watchers, anglers and marine biologists, as well as astronomers.

“The environment is so clean that nature is able to survive and thrive [here],” senior manager Ivan Yap proudly told visitors during a tour on 4 July 2012. Indeed, 66 bird species and 17 fish species have been found in and around the landfill. Visitors can also marvel at exposed mangroves, coral reefs and starfish along the coastline during low tide.

As the island is free from light pollution, the Astronomical Society of Singapore carries out stargazing activities on it.

How did Singapore manage this? And what lessons can Malaysians learn from our neighbour to improve our waste-management system?

The landfill off the coast of Singapore

An engineering marvel

Due to land scarcity, Singapore closed its last landfill on the mainland in 1999 and spent S$610 million (approximately RM1.5 billion) to construct the Semakau landfill in the ocean.

The offshore landfill is made up of the Semakau Island, Sakeng Island and a 7km rock bund that encloses a part of the sea off the two islands. According to Yap, the rock bund is lined with impermeable membrane and marine clay, a material commonly found in the sea bed, to prevent any leachate from contaminating the sea. Monthly checks are done to ensure there is no leakage, he said.

Singapore has four incinerator plants and burns almost all its trash to reduce the volume of waste by at least 90%. It then ships the ash and non-incinerable waste, such as construction debris and treated sludge from factories, to the 350-hectare landfill.

“We don’t receive organic waste, that’s why the landfill doesn’t stink,” Yap explained.

The waste management system in Singapore at a glance

Nevertheless, the landfill’s general manager, Ong Chong Peng, said there are four dry cells and a small leachate treatment plant in case they have to receive food waste.

The landfill has received over 10 million tonnes of ash and waste since 1999 and is expected to last at least another 33 years.

Ong said the recycling rate in Singapore is around 59% and the country aims to shore it up to 65% by 2020 and 70% by 2030 to prolong the life of their only landfill.

Separate, burn then bury

Malaysia has been slow to adopt incinerators, with most of our states still relying entirely on landfills to bury our trash. Not all of our dumpsites are equipped with proper facilities to treat landfill gas and leachate.

We also don’t segregate our household waste. Our recycling rate is dismally low at about 11%. The federal government aims to increase this to only 40% by 2020. Paradoxically, it also aims to become an advanced nation capable of managing our resources efficiently by 2020. This would hardly be the case if we’re still wasting valuable resources and precious landfill space by dumping more than half of our recyclable items into landfills.

Our political leaders need to snap to their senses. We don’t have an infinite amount of land to bury our household waste, which is increasing at an annual rate of around two percent. The people in Selangor and Kuala Lumpur throw out an average of 7,375 tonnes of garbage – the equivalent of about 1,400 Borneo pygmy elephants – a day.

The federal government’s move to provide separate bins for organic waste is a good start.

The waste reception hall at Semakau landfill

We should be aggressively emulating not just Singapore but cities like Malmo in Sweden, which use their food waste to produce biogas to power the buses in their city.

Malmo also recycles close to 98% of its household waste. Their municipal waste company provides separate, clearly labelled bins for not just glass, paper, cardboard, metal and plastic, but for batteries as well.

If anything, Singapore and Malmo have demonstrated that it is possible to manage waste more creatively. Stinky, polluting landfills need not be the norm. Malaysia already has an increasingly eco-conscious populace, all we need now is political will.

Gan Pei Ling believes Malaysia is capable of outdoing Singapore and Sweden to become a more sustainable nation.

Slow death by aluminium smelters?

by Gan Pei Ling / 18 June 2012 © The Nut Graph

WHILE green activists in Peninsular Malaysia are protesting the rare earth refinery that has yet to begin operations in Gebeng, Pahang, villagers living near an aluminium smelting plant in Balingian, Mukah, Sarawak, have been suffering in silence.

Documentary filmmaker and former TV2 producer Chou Z Nam has highlighted the Iban villagers’ plight in four short videos, all available on YouTube, and a report after a field visit in February 2012. Chou is well-known for his documentaries on the Bakun Dam and its impact on local communities. His Bakun Dam documentaries were axed by RTM and he was sacked after disclosing the self-censorship.

How is the aluminium smelting plant affecting the lives of local communities in Balingian? Should we be alarmed at plans for new plants?

The aluminium smelting plant in Mukah (Source: unireka.com)

Declining health and dying crops

In Chou’s first short video released on 22 March 2012, villager Sandy Dancan, 18, complained of skin irritation and rashes which she has had since 2010. Dancan lives 300m away from the plant owned by Press Metal Sarawak Sdn Bhd.

Another villager, Cynthia Unau, 25, worked as a cleaner at the smelter for six months in 2011. She claimed she fell sick while working there in Chou’s second video released on 24 March 2012.

A simple health survey conducted by Chou and local activist Matek Geram found that villagers from three longhouses located 300m to 2.5km from the factory reported symptoms of breathing difficulties, coughing and dizziness, among others. The affected families say they spend RM150 up to RM500 a month for medical treatment.

It was also observed that plants growing 50m to 200m from the factory including nipah, coconut, sago, banana, oil palm and ferns, were dying.

Farmers living within 12km of the smelter have claimed loss of livelihood as their crops cannot bear fruit, while fisherfolk at Batang Balingian alleged that their catch has dwindled, possibly due to acid rain pollution.

Chou’s documentary also records an unidentified former employee accusing the smelter of only using one out of its three compressors to treat air pollutants including hydrogen fluorideand sulphur dioxide in order to save energy costs. The informant claimed that although the plant was equipped with the required pollution control facility, it wasn’t fully utilised when he was working there.

Press Metal Sarawak refuted these claims in a Borneo Post report published on 8 May 2012. Its human resources general manager, Soh Siew Ong, said the smelter only released clean gas into the air and that no water is discharged from the plant.

A screenshot of Cynthia Unau’s testimony featured in Chou’s video

More smelters in the pipeline

While villagers in Balingian are still grappling with the health impact of living near an aluminium plant, at least two new larger smelters are expected to be built in Bintulu.

Press Metal Bhd secured a RM350 million loan in May 2012 from two local banks to finance the construction of its second aluminium smelting plant in Bintulu’s Samalaju Industrial Park. The plant is expected to produce 240,000 tonnes of aluminium annually, double the capacity of the existing Balingian plant.

Smelter Asia, a joint venture between Gulf International Investment Group Holdings Sdn Bhd and Aluminium Corp of China, also plans to build a smelter in the same industrial park, with an even larger annual capacity of 370,000 tonnes.

Aluminium smelting involves a chemical process to extract pure aluminium from its oxide called alumina. But the process leaves behind fluoride pollutants, including the pungent and toxic hydrogen fluoride as well as perfluorocarbons (PFCs), which are far more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide.

In addition, an aluminium smelting plant is an energy guzzler as a high temperature of 970 Celsius is needed to melt the alumina. For example, while the Mukah district consumes two megawatts of electricity per month, the Balingian smelter alone uses up to 200 megawatts a month, according to Press Metal Sarawak. Smelter Asia is also in talks with Sarawak Energy Bhd to secure over 600 megawatts of power supply.

Heed the warning signs

The process of extracting aluminium is an environmental challenge. Yet, aluminium is highly sought after to make vehicles and for food packaging, and is arguably a necessity in modern life. The aluminium industry is one of the primary forces behind the Brazilian government’s plan to dam rivers in the Amazon to meet the industry’s high energy demand. Sarawak seems to be going down the same path with its grand plan to build 12 mega dams despite growing local opposition.

Unlike the case with Lynas, a detailed environmental impact assessment was done for theBalingian smelter. But given the current complaints, the government authorities need to be more proactive in addressing villagers’ complaints on health problems, pollution and dying plants. These are merely warning signs of a potentially larger underlying problem. If, as Press Metal Sarawak claims, no air pollutants have been released by its smelting plant, then what is the real source of pollution in Balingian? Shouldn’t the authorities be investigating?

Taib Mahmud (Wiki commons)

As Chou recommended in his fact-finding report, a more thorough health study needs to be conducted to ascertain the cause of the villagers’ sicknesses. Rainwater and plant samples ought to be collected by the state Department of Environment to find out if they are contaminated with pollutants from the smelter.

The Balingian smelter is located Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud’s constituency. Surely he wouldn’t want an environmental and public health scandal in his own backyard.

In addition, the Sarawak government ought to rethink its development strategy. Building more smelters may indeed spur the state’s economic growth, but not at the expense of the health and quality of life of the locals, unless the companies are held to strict environmental standards.

Gan Pei Ling thinks more public attention needs to be given to the health and environmental impact of aluminium smelting plants in Sarawak. They certainly deserve equal, if not more, public scrutiny than Lynas.

What will remove opposition to Lynas?

by Gan Pei Ling / 21 May 2012 © The Nut Graph

CONTROVERSY surrounding the rare earth refinery in Gebeng, Pahang has generated lively, and sometimes polarising, debate among those who support and those who oppose Lynas Corp. The debates have, among others, centred on the refinery’s impact on the environment and local communities, and the government’s role in the matter.

In August 2011, local experts from the Academy of Sciences Malaysia (ASM) and the National Professors’ Council also weighed in by producing a report on rare earth industries. The report acknowledged that the industry presents both economic opportunities and environmental and health risks to local communities. The academy invited four foreign experts to visit the Gebeng plant, and asked them to give their views in a 9 May 2012 public forum.

Panel of experts at the 9 May 2012 forum organised by ASM

What do the Academy of Sciences and the four experts think about the rare earth refinery in the east coast of Peninsula Malaysia? And what will it take to remove opposition to a project that brings economic benefits just as it stokes fears for public safety and health?

Evaluating the refinery


After their 8 May 2012 visit, all four experts, from Canada, the US, China and Germany, agreed that the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP) was well designed. Alastair Neill, a trained engineer and executive vice-president of Dacha Strategic Metals, described the refinery as a “world-class facility”. The Canadian, who has been in the industry since 1995, thinks the Gebeng refinery is the best among the plants he has seen in China and Japan.

Neill noted that Lynas would attract a lot of downstream companies to Malaysia as demand for rare earth elements in the green technology sector was fast rising. To illustrate, he said rare earth metals are commonly used to manufacture the more energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs. He noted that China produced 62 million compact fluorescent light bulbs in 2008 and the production doubled a year later.

In addition, Neill highlighted that a hybrid or electric car uses around 10kg to 12kg of rare earth metals while wind turbines of one-megawatt capacity, made of neodymium magnets, use about 400kg.


Founding principal of Technology Metals Research, Jack Lifton, remarked that Lynas is Malaysia’s “gateway to 21st century technology”. The American expert has been involved in the rare earth industry for 48 years and thinks the pollution risks posed by the chemical plant are “low” and manageable.

Be transparent and proactive

According to the ASM report, the Lynas refinery will generate three types of wastes — Water Leach Purification (WLP) residue, Flue Gas Desulphurisation residue and Neutralisation Underflow (NUF) residue.

Lynas claims it has developed a method to dilute the concentration of radioactive thorium and uranium in its WLP residue from six Becquerel per gram to below one Becquerel per gram, the limit set by the Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB). The company is confident it can recycleits diluted WLP residue as road base and NUF residue as fertilisers.

Nonetheless, the International Atomic Energy Agency had, after its visit in June 2011, recommended that the company locate and build a permanent disposal site in the event that Lynas failed to commercialise its waste residue.

Prof Dr Yan Chun-Hua from Peking University said Lynas should make public its dilution method of the WLP residue to sooth public concerns over radiation pollution. “[Consult] the public, never fight (with them). The public is always right. They complain and raise questions because they’re concerned. If you can convince the public, they’ll support your project,” said the chief scientist on rare earth functional materials from China’s Science and Technology Ministry.


ASM senior fellow Lee Yee Cheong, who moderated the discussion, also conceded that the lack of public consultation prior to the project’s approval had fuelled deep distrust between the local communities and the government. He said a detailed environmental impact assessment, instead of a preliminary environmental impact assessment, should have been carried out.

“Going forward, the government must consult the local communities (before approving a project of such scale),” said Lee. He added that ASM recommends that the government commissions a university to carry out a long-term baseline health study to monitor the refinery’s impact on surrounding communities.

Lee said the government should also help clean up the Gebeng industrial zone as some of the existing chemical plants have polluted the environment. “Any development must be green and clean,” he stressed in his concluding remarks at the forum.

Engage and be open

What with the parliamentary select committee and media visits organised by Lynas, Himpunan Hijau and other anti-Lynas groups have clearly succeeded in pressuring the government and the corporation to be more transparent about the refinery’s operations.

Now that the communication channels are open, local communities should continue to ask more questions. These questions could be to find out how Lynas plans to deal with its residues, and whether a permanent disposal facility is needed as different parties seem to have differing views.

For now, the crux of people’s opposition to the refinery lies in fears about the radioactivity of the waste that will be produced. If expert and independent scientists can be convinced that the plant’s operations can be conducted in a way that makes it safe, shouldn’t those who oppose the Lynas plant be open towards different views so long as they are supported by facts and science?

Dr Yan

At the same time, Lynas would do well to regain public confidence by making its processes for dealing with the radioactive waste as accessible as possible to experts and the public. Peking University’s Dr Yan said as much when he was asked to comment on the viability of Lynas recycling its radioactive waste. “I didn’t see the detailed parameters (of the study). But I think Lynas should release the data so the public can [evaluate it].”

By doing so, Lynas would prove that it had nothing to hide. And it would also ensure that any radioactivity will effectively be dealt with through a process that is robust and that has been peer-reviewed. And if the radioactive waste can be dealt with to ensure no public harm, why should there be any more opposition to the rare earth refinery in Gebeng?

Gan Pei Ling is still learning something new about rare earths and sustainable development every other day. She thinks it’s important to keep an open mind when engaging on any issues.

What’s wrong with a rare earth plant, here?

by Gan Pei Ling / 26 March 2012 © The Nut Graph

THE rare earth refinery in Gebeng, Pahang is arguably now the hottest environmental issue in Peninsular Malaysia. And both the Malaysian government and Lynas Corp, the company that wants to set up the refinery in Pahang, are struggling to convince an increasingly skeptical Malaysian public that the rare earth refinery is safe.

On 20 March 2012, the Dewan Rakyat set up a parliamentary select committee (PSC) to soothe concerns about public health and safety arising from the radioactive waste that will be produced by the rare earth refinery. But Pakatan Rakyat (PR) lawmakers have boycotted the PSC while Lynas opponents, Himpunan Hijau, have decried the PSC as a public relations exercise. In a related development, on 20 March 2012, the Kuala Lumpur High Court ordered the Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB) to explain what Lynas can do with the Temporary Operating License that it granted the Australian company on 30 Jan 2012.

Himpunan Hijau 2.0 rally (© Gan Pei Ling)

As tempers rise over the issue, the debate may just boil down to an emotive one where fear and anger cloud reasonable and measured discussion and action about a public interest issue. Is it really such a terrifying thing to set up a rare earth refinery in Malaysia? And if it’s not, what could the government have done better to handle the public’s fear over exposure to radiation? And how can anti-Lynas groups remain true to public interest?

Safe if properly managed

Che Rosli Che Mat (source: parlimen.gov.my)

Regardless of whether or not they are familiar with environmental issues, most PR politicians have happily jumped on the growing anti-Lynas bandwagon except PAS lawmaker Dr Che Rosli Che Mat. The nuclear scientist and Hulu Langat parliamentarian says that a rare earth refinery can be safe as long as it is properly monitored.

Indeed, anti-Lynas groups claim that the plant will pollute the Kuantan coast and have warned that the refining process is toxic. But really the most contentious point about Lynas is its waste management plan and if the company can assure the public it has a fail-safe plan, can we still justify opposition to the plant?

The Lynas refinery is located in Gebeng, an industrial zone. Bearing in mind that most industrial zones such as Port Klang and Pasir Gudang are situated near the sea, I don’t see why Lynas shouldn’t be allowed to do the same as long as it treats its wastewater before releasing it.

Nevertheless, the government should have anticipated high public concerns over the plant’s safety and its effect on public health from the painful episodes of the Asian Rare Earth plant in Bukit Merah, Perak. It should have publicised the project before approving the refinery’s construction in 2008 and held public briefings to inform the surrounding communities about the plant. The government should have actively disseminated information instead of only releasing it when the public sought it.

In addition, it was also premature for the Pahang government to approve construction without first finding a suitable location for Lynas to store its low-level radioactive waste. Now works on the RM700 million plant are near complete but public opposition is growing by the day. And Lynas is fast becoming a powerful election issue that is likely to affect the Barisan Nasional’s performance.

To the government’s credit, it did invite experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency(IAEA) to inspect the Lynas refinery in June 2011. It also set up the PSC but all these measures have come too late to dispel the refinery opponents’ deep distrust of the authorities.

Viewing the damage at Unit 3 of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (© G Webb | IAEA)

Why not in Malaysia?

From using social media, and organising forums and protests relentlessly, to travelling toAustralia to lobby foreign lawmakers, the awareness anti-Lynas groups have generated locally and internationally is phenomenal.

The Himpunan Hijau 2.0 rally on 26 Feb 2012 in Kuantan attracted thousands of participants. The organisers have threatened to hold a larger protest to pressure the government to revokeLynas’s temporary operating license.

I admire their efforts to hold the government and a corporation accountable. Hence, I willingly attended the 26 Feb 2012 rally. But I’m afraid I don’t see eye-to-eye with the organisers’ aim to scrap the project entirely.

I agree that Lynas should not be allowed to operate until a permanent waste disposal site is found and the company sufficiently addresses the construction flaws alleged by former contractors. And that’s as far as I would go.

Picture of a phone with the caption “This product contains rare earth elements” (© Gan Pei Ling)

Let’s face it. Rare earth elements are increasingly being used in our consumer products including electronic screens, disk drives, MP3 players and hybrid cars. We need refineries to process the ore in order to manufacture these goods.

So far, the world has left the dirty job of refining rare earths to China. But what does it say about us if we oppose the Gebeng refinery but continue to buy and hence, sustain demand for, the end-products?

Compared to the Chinese, I think Malaysians are in a much better position to scrutinise the government and corporations. Some may argue that Australia is a much more advanced democracy with more stringent environmental regulations. But why can’t we pressure our own government to live up to the same, if not better, standards?

And while the refinery may only create a few hundred jobs for locals near Gebeng, downstream manufacturing companies would be able to source the rare earths directly from Pahang. Is that not an economic benefit to Malaysia?

Trust and credibility

From my observation, much of the opposition against Lynas is based on an irrational fear over radiation pollution from the low-level radioactive waste of thorium and uranium rather than informed opinions on the issue. And fear can be a powerful thing and hence, useful and easy to manipulate.

Some Lynas opponents have capitalised on this fear to gain support. For example, by telling a forum I attended last year that radiation knows no boundaries and that if there is a radiation leak in Gebeng, even people in Kuala Lumpur can be affected.

But where are the facts and context? How much radiation would the low-level radioactive waste from the Lynas plant generate? And how does it compare to the radiation we’re already exposed to in our daily life?

According to some experts, even the fear over the radiation at Fukushima, Japan is overblown. And it is that same fear that is being stoked in Gebeng. For certain, there are risks involved in any industrial activity, be it refining rare earths, processing aluminum or manufacturingfertilisers. The question is, how large are those risks to public health and aren’t there steps Lynas can be compelled to take to minimise them?

If we are to solve this impasse between the government, Lynas and the opponents of the project, all sides including the anti-Lynas groups, must be transparent. That means putting forward arguments that are reasonable, accurate and in-context. It also means not resorting to propaganda just because your opponent is doing that, too.

Gan Pei Ling thinks cultivating uninformed masses gives the government even more justification to act like a patronising Big Brother. She cautions against supporting any cause before learning the facts.

Related post: Lynas: What’s the fuss?