Proposed Aust rare earths refinery stirs emotions in Malaysia

Posted on May 19, 2011. Filed under: Pollution |

ABC Radio Australia–

Demonstrators are planning to rally outside the Australian Embassy in Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpor on Friday.

They’ll be protesting against the Australian mining company Lynas and its plans to process rare earths in Pahang state. Local communities and environmental groups have raised concerns over the management of radioactive waste. They say the waste product thorium will affect fishing, tourism and public health .. while the Malaysian government has also asked for more information.

Reporter: Karon Snowdon
Speakers: Fuziah Salleh, People’s Justice Party MP; Gurmit Singh, engineer and advisor to the Environmental Protection Society of Malaysia; Nick Curtis, Chairman, Lynas group

SNOWDON: Rare earths are often said to be good for the environment. They make wind turbines, electric cars and low energy electric lights more efficient. They’re also used in computers and televisions. But the pollution associated with them is less consumer friendly. So when the Australian mining company Lynas Corporation decided to build a processing plant in Malaysia for its minerals from western australia, local people weren’t welcoming even though the government was.

Fuziah Salleh is a member of parliament for the oppositon People’s Justice Party. Her district of Kuantan on the east coast of Malaysia is the site of the 230 million dollar processing plant. She’s critical of what she says are lower environmental standards in Malaysia and double standards from Lynas.

SALLEH: I’m very concerned that Lynas is taking advantage of the loopholes in our laws, and does not implement, what it’s supposed to implement in Australia, but use a different standard here in Malaysia.

SNOWDON: We don’t have such plants here in Australia, so there’s nothing really, to measure against, I guess?

SALLEH: But the fact is that the authorities have issued a licence to Ashton rare earth, prior to Lynas acquiring it. And I had a copy of that approval and then, I saw, how stringent they are.

SNOWDON: So the Ashton plan proposed here in Australia had more stringent requirements than the one in Malaysia?

SALLEH: Yes, that’s what I’m saying.

SNOWDON: Lynas hopes to be the world leader in rare earth exports and has Japanese customers lining up for the first new production outside of China in fifty years. It’s been attracted to the 12 year tax free holiday offered by the Malaysian government to boost investment. Kuantan is the country’s first special economic zone.

Gurmit Singh is an engineer and advisor to the Environmental Protection Society of Malaysia.

SINGH: If it’s reasonably that good, why don’t they do the processing within Australia, why send it to Malaysia? it is a classic example of a polluting industry being exported to a developing country.

SNOWDON: The Malaysian government has engaged international Atomic Energy Agency experts to review the processing plant. Lynas executives declined to respond to questions for this report while the review is underway, saying only the construction schedule for a September opening is on track.

Critics of the plant cite the problem of large amounts of low level radiactive thorium waste left from a Mitsubishi rare earth plant forced to close in 1992.

Gurmit Singh wants proof the Lynas operation will be safe.

SINGH: Five or six years ago, hoards of people, children being deformed, miscarriages happening and all that, these are all documented.

SNOWDON: That was 20 years ago, and one can assume the technology has improved since then?

SINGH: Ha ha, these assumptions are always very nebulous, because if the radiation is there, the radiation is there. The only argument is, what is the level of concentration of thorium, and this is where I think there’s a dispute going within the claims of Lynas and a report from the Australian parliament which claimed that the radiation levels of the concentration of thorium would be much higher than what Lynas is claiming.

SNOWDON: Lynas Chairman Nick Curtis told the Australia Network last week Mitsubishi’s Bukit Merah plant can’t be compared to Lynas.

CURTIS: Bukit Merah was a different material to ours. It’s not the rare earths that have any level of radioactivity, it’s the residue material around the rare earths, and therefore, the dosages of radioactive material in that residue are the critical issue. Bukit Merah was a different material, with a very, very much higher level of radioactive materials in the residue.

SNOWDON: MP Fauziah Salleh will be leading a range of community groups from Kuantan, on a protest march against Lynas to the Australian High Commission on Friday.

SALLEH: We are a tourism town, where we have lots of tourists coming, we have beautiful beaches, we have seafood industry, we have fishing industry, and all of this will be affected, and they are very very near by the plant that’s going to be built.

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