Lynas: An unsolved conundrum

by Gan Pei Ling / 29 July 2013 © The Nut Graph

IT’S been more than two years since The New York Times first broke the story on the construction of the Lynas rare earth refinery in Malaysia. Groups like Himpunan Hijau and Save Malaysia Stop Lynas have since organised several rallies and even taken the government and company to court. In response to public uproar, the Malaysian government invited international experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2011 and set up a parliamentary select committee in 2012 to review the plant.

(© cumi&ciki | Flickr)

(© cumi&ciki | Flickr)

After many road bumps, Lynas Corp finally secured a temporary operating license and began operations in November 2012. The company is also monitoring radioactivity levels at Gebeng which it periodically publicises.

However, there are still many questions about what will happen to the low-level radioactive waste that the plant produces. How will the hazardous by-products of a rare earth refinery be dealt with? And how are the government and anti-Lynas groups responding to these developments?

Recycle? Ship abroad?

Lynas Corp is confident that it can recycle the low-level radioactive residue into commercial products. The company intends to dilute its radioactive water leach purification residue into road base material and recycle its neutralisation underflow residue into fertilisers.

But as The Wall Street Journal pointed out in an 11 Dec 2012 report, such technology has yet to be tested. Additionally, it remains to be seen whether Lynas can find buyers to make its recycling proposal commercially viable.

The Atomic Energy Licensing Board and the Department of Environment are also still reviewing the recycling proposal. And even if the proposal is approved, Science, Technology and Innovation Deputy Minister Datuk Dr Abu Bakar Mohamad Diah told Parliament on 19 July 2013 that “these products must leave the country”.

In other words, Lynas must find international buyers for its recycled products. And should the recycling plan fail, the waste must be shipped abroad. But where to?

Permanent dumpsite

Australia is unlikely to take back the waste. And one wonders which other country would willingly import such waste and risk its citizen’s ire? At this stage, I think we should be prepared for the worst-case scenario where the waste is stored locally.

Indeed, on 2 July 2013, the Australian company submitted its plan for a permanent disposal facility. However, Dr Abu Bakar has declared that Lynas has no plans to permanently store the waste in Malaysia but that international procedures require the building of a permanent disposal facility. In the meantime, ministers have refused to disclose the plan and the potential locations for such a facility, likely fearing more protests from communities in any of these locations.

The Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Datuk Dr Ewon Ebin said on 5 July 2013 that the government could not reveal identified locations as it was “not finalised”. Six days later, the Energy, Green Technology and Water Minister Datuk Seri Dr Maximus Ongkili was reported to have said the government need not disclose the plan since Lynas might be able to recycle the waste.

What is apparent is that there is no guarantee Lynas will be able to recycle the waste or to ship it out. Indeed, it’s clear that no matter what our political leaders say publicly, the company in consultation with the government seems to have prepared a contingency plan for the waste to be stored in Malaysia permanently.

(© existangst | Flickr)

(© existangst | Flickr)

Learning from past mistakes

It appears that the government has yet to learn from its past mistakes. The Lynas controversy stemmed from the government’s foolish move to approve the construction of the rare earth refinery without public consultation. Most Malaysians were only aware of the plant after the The New York Times report. If the government wants to restore public confidence, it must be transparent in all its future dealings with Lynas and the public.

Even if the final location of the permanent disposal facility has yet to be determined, the government must guarantee that it will consult the relevant state governments and local communities before a location is finalised. The government must assure local communities that they will be treated and included as legitimate stakeholders when the time comes. This is especially so since there are real fears that the community’s livelihood and environment could be affected by a permanent disposal facility in their midst.

Compared to the government, Lynas Corp seems to be doing a better public relations job. On 10 July 2013, it dropped the defamation suit against Save Malaysia Stop Lynas. Apart from that, it’s clear Lynas has a business to run. Hence, it must manage its relationship with stakeholders carefully if it’s to continue running its business.

(© existangst | Flickr)

(© existangst | Flickr)

Continued protests

To keep public attention on Lynas, Himpunan Hijau is running a campaign to collect one million Malaysian signatures to shut down the plant. The petition will start on 24 Aug 2013 and the signatures will be presented to among others, Parliament and the financial institutions that back Lynas. Himpunan Hijau chairperson Wong Tack has also announced that the coalition might take to the streets again in October.

Meanwhile, Save Malaysia Stop Lynas lead campaigner Tan Bun Teet has vowed to continue its international campaign against Lynas. The group has also mobilised local residents to file for judicial reviews in an attempt to revoke Lynas’s temporary operating license. Clearly, the parliamentary select committee and the approval of international experts has not been sufficient to convince skeptics of Lynas’s safety.

What needs to happen next? The government needs to be honest with the public. How feasible is Lynas’s recycling plan? Should it fail, is it really possible for Lynas to ship the waste abroad? If no, will Lynas store the waste locally? Or will it close down the plant after the temporary operating license expires in September 2014?

These are legitimate questions that the public deserve answers to. Will they be forthcoming? Past experience suggests the answer will be “No”. And if past experience is anything to go by, then the government will have to brace itself for more protests and bad press over Lynas.

Gan Pei Ling is going abroad to pursue a one-year master’s degree on the environment. She hopes the government will sort out Lynas’s waste management plan before she returns in September 2014.

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.

Green voters hunting for green reps

by Gan Pei Ling / 22 August 2011 © The Nut Graph

green-votersRUMOURS have been rife since late 2010 that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak might call for the 13th general election by this year before the economy takes a worse turn. As such, not just political parties but civil society has been gearing up for an impending election.

Among the civil society groups are a group of environmentalists, who set up Green Voters in July 2011 to mainstream and highlight environmental issues at the upcoming elections. The collective has yet to finalise its action plan but the idea is to focus candidates and political parties’ attention on environmental issues.

It would be amazing if all contesting candidates in the next general election were posed key questions on the environment in their respective constituencies à la The Nut Graph’s MP Watch project.

It is difficult to narrow down the key environmental questions, considering the many environmental issues Malaysia needs to tackle, but here are the questions I would ask candidates standing in my constituency:

1. What’s your stand on nuclear power? Do you agree or disagree that Malaysia needs to go nuclear? Why?

Reactor Unit 3 (right) and Reactor Unit 4 (left) of the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant (source: Wiki Commons)

Reactor Unit 3 (right) and Reactor Unit 4 (left) of the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant (source: Wiki Commons)

The federal government’s 2010 announcement to build two nuclear power plants in Malaysia by 2021 has received mixed public reactions. The Fukushimameltdown in March 2011 has caused a further negative dip in public perception towards nuclear power.

Germany plans to shut down its nuclear reactor by 2022 but China is going ahead with its plan to build 36 reactors within the decade while our Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak said nuclear remains an “option” for Malaysia.

Regardless whether a candidate supports or objects to nuclear power, I’m more interested in the reasons for their stand.

2. Would you support an amendment to make public consultation compulsory before a forest reserve can be de-gazetted? Why?

Currently, forests, including those that have been gazetted as reserves can be cleared in the name of development for, say, highway construction without public inquiry except in one state. Selangor made history in April 2011 when it passed an amendment to the state’s Forestry Act to ensure a public inquiry must be held before a forest reserve can be excised. However, other states have yet to emulate Selangor’s move.

Our elected representatives should understand that sustainable development is crucial if we want to ensure tragedies such as the 21 May 2011 Hulu Langat landslide, 2008 Bukit Antarabangsa landslide and 1993 Highland Towers collapse do not recur. We need to protect ecologically-sensitive areas not just for conservation purposes but also for our own sake.

Damage caused by the Bukit Antarabangsa landslide of 6 Dec 2008 (Pic courtesy of Raj Kumar)

A properly implemented public consultation process would not only serve to promote transparency and accountability but also encourage participatory democracy among our citizens.

3. Would you support tax rebates for developers and property owners that incorporate eco-friendly designs such as rainwater harvesting systems and solar panels? Why?

This question was inspired by the Petaling Jaya City Council’s initiative to introduce a tax rebate scheme for “green” houses in the city, which is expected to be finalised by the city council by the end of 2011.

The tax rebate scheme would also complement the federal government’s feed-in-tariff system which would allow individuals to sell electricity produced from renewable energy back to Tenaga Nasional Berhad.

4. Would you work with the local council(s) to promote recycling and set up more recycling centres in your constituency?

Ideally, such initiatives should be done by local councillors but local government elections have yet to be restored. So it would not be too much to ask of our Member of Parliament and state assemblyperson to work with the appointed local councillors in their constituencies to promote recycling, would it?

There are other important questions that are more localised. For example, if I were a voter in Pahang, I would ask the contesting candidates on their stand on the Lynas rare earth refinery. If I were a voter in Sarawak, I would ask the candidates whether all the dams the state is constructing are really necessary.

For too long election issues have been determined by politicians and political parties, often centred on race, ethnicity and religion. If elections were to truly reflect the people’s will, then the rakyat needs to take the initiative to determine the agenda of an election instead of allowing politicians to steer public discourse along populist and often divisive and unhelpful lines.

Disclosure: Gan Pei Ling was invited by forest conservationist Lim Teck Wyn to join Green Voters but has remained mostly a dormant member. Still, she is always inspired by citizens’ initiative to reclaim democratic processes, especially the elections, and thinks it’s definitely worth highlighting.