Malaysia: Australian corporate polluter Lynas told to remove radioactive waste

An anti-Lynas protest in Malaysia. Photo: Stop Lynas Campaign

Since it began operating its controversial rare earth refinery in Malaysia in 2013, Australian company Lynas Corp has produced about 450,000 tonnes of radioactive waste. After the first-ever change of federal government in Malaysia last year, local residents hoped this corporate polluter would finally be brought to account. Green Left Weekly's Peter Boyle interviewed Malaysian environmental and residents’ rights activist Jade Lee from the Stop Lynas campaign about the latest developments.  

Lynas’ rare earth refinery in Kuantan has been getting a lot of media attention recently. Can you summarise the key developments?

Wesfarmers, the $38 billion Perth-based conglomerate that owns well-known retail chains including Target and Bunnings, went public with a $2.25 a share [takeover] offer for Lynas on March 26. The bid became hot news when Lynas publicly accused Wesfarmers of being opportunistic and aggressive by going to the Malaysian government to make a direct offer to only refine radioactive-free rare earth minerals if Wesfarmers takes over Lynas.

In doing so, Wesfarmers undermined Lynas' bargaining power with Malaysia, as it negotiates some serious outstanding issues with its waste with the current Pakatan Harapan government.

After Pakatan Harapan got into power — ending 61 years of Barisan Nasional rule in Malaysia — a review was called to look into the Lynas issue. Stop Lynas was one of the issues raised in past Malaysian elections by Pakatan Harapan coalition member parties, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the People's Justice Party (PKR).  

The Islamic Party (PAS) previously opposed Lynas but has since done a U-turn. Youth members of PAS in the Gebeng-Balok area took up offers (facilitated by the previous federal government) of above-local-wage jobs in the Lynas processing plant. These workers are largely ignorant of the hazards and risk they are dealing with; especially for those working in the waste management area and in the ore concentrate storage area.

Initially the Executive Review was to be chaired by Kuantan MP Fuziah Salleh, but Lynas protested strongly because of her strong anti-Lynas stance.  

Fuziah then resigned from the position and the Minister  for Energy, Technology, Science, Climate Change and Environment, Yeo Bee Yin appointed a group of academics to the review committee, four out of six of whom have previous direct or indirect links with Lynas.

Not surprisingly, the review committee's report did not go into the detail of Lynas' waste problems, did not do any independent tests to verify Lynas' claims and made weak recommendations which do little to remove the hazards from Lynas.

Nevertheless, Yeo sought to enforce the contractual agreement undertaken by Lynas to remove its radioactive waste generated through the water-leached purification stream. Lynas has appealed this decision.

Yeo also directed Lynas to submit a viable off-site solution for its contaminated gypsum waste by mid February. Lynas submitted a  proposal that, if approved, will have 11-storey high waste stacks storing millions of tonnes of waste.  Local State Assembly representative Lee Chean Chung is challenging this proposal, claiming it is illegal under Malaysia's regulations to store this kind of waste on-site for more than six months.  Lynas has acummulated over 1.4 million tonnes of waste since 2013.

How would you characterise the response to these developments by the Pakatan Harapan government?

Tun Dr Mahathir, Malaysia's current pro-industry pro-business prime minister, sees Wesfarmers, a corporation 30 times richer than Lynas, as a more enticing partner than a junior mining company with a single asset tied to its Mount Weld mine and the controversial Malaysia plant.

However, other Malaysian MPs who have campaigned strongly against Lynas, such as Fuziah Salleh and Wong Tack, are sceptical that Wesfarmers will be able to sort out the half a million tonnes of radioactive waste, sitting next to Lynas' plant in a low-lying peat mangrove and contaminating the ground water with toxic heavy metals such as nickel, chromium, lead and mercury.

Malaysia's environment minister has demanded that Lynas honour its 2012 undertakings to remove the waste from Malaysia, but the Western Australian government has long refused to accept the return of the waste from ore exported from WA.

So far, Lynas has not taken action to have its radioactive waste removed, which may result in its operating licence not being renewed when it expires on September 2.  

With a corporate takeover of Lynas still brewing, our concern is that pollution generated previous to any changeover may be left behind for the host country to deal with. That's happened very often all around the world.

Several NGOs have signed an open letter to the Pakatan Harapan government. What were their demands?

More than 60 NGOs called on the Malaysian PM and his cabinet to suspend Lynas’ operating licence to stop this company from further polluting our environment.

They also demand that the Pakatan Harapan government reject Lynas’ application to turn its current waste storage site into a prescribed premises for its massive amount of scheduled waste.

The NGOs insist that Lynas and/or its new owner take active steps to remove its toxic radioactive waste from Malaysia by the September deadline and thoroughly clean up its contaminated groundwater and soil, not allowing any of Lynas’ toxic waste to remain in Malaysia to risk contaminating our environment.

The government should ensure that the promised US$50 million deposit from Lynas is paid in full in cash and not in Lynas’ shares.

Finally, Malayasia's Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB) and Department of Environment need to ensure that they perform their mandated roles and duty with a high degree of professionalism and integrity in the interest of Malaysia and its people.

What is the state of community opposition to Lynas in Malaysia?

Community opposition remains strong, by and large. Many people believed that Lynas would be shut down now that Pakatan Harapan is in government, as many of the senior ministers vowed to do so before. Sadly, we have a PM who is pro-business and pro-industry and is unwilling to take the drastic action to shut down Lynas.

Furthermore, while the government has changed hands, the bureaucrats have remained the same and they have continued with their old ways of not doing anything to counter Lynas' claims.  

They also lack the resources, competency or confidence to carry out their mandated monitoring tasks to enforce the law, or they are on the take and would not want to rock the gravy train.  

Without data from her bureaucrats, environment minister Yeo could not take tough action against Lynas over the groundwater contamination problems, even though about 50 families living within 5km of the plant draw their drinking water from wells or tub wells.

[Friends of the Earth Australia and Stop Lynas Campaign Australia recently issued a joint statement calling on Lynas to stop polluting Malaysia with its toxic radioactive waste and to start cleaning up the mess it has created.]