Resident group activists in Malaysia who have been campaigning to stop an Australian corporation, Lynas, from building a highly toxic rare earth refinery near Kuantan, Pahang, celebrated a little victory after Justice Mariana Yahya of the Kuantan High Court agreed on August 28 to hear their application for two judicial reviews.
The first application was for the court to revoke the temporary operating licence granted by Malaysia's Atomic Energy Licensing Board on January 30 to the Lynas plant on the ground that no detailed environmental impact assessment was done and that a fresh radiological impact assessment and a radioactive waste management plan should have been submitted to the Board for approval before the licence was granted.
The second application was to o review the decision of Malaysia's Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation not to revoke the Lynas temporary operating licence following an appeal by a group of Kuantan residents who together with their legal representative and experts, appeared before the ministry's panel on April 17 with evidence of risks and harm of the project.
Tan Bun Teet, one of the applicants and a spokesperson for the Save Malaysia Stop Lynas group said that Lynas had initially intended to apply to be a party to the court proceeding but its lawyer withdrew at the last minute for unknown reasons.
Green Left Weekly spoke with Malaysian environmental and residents rights activist Jade Lee about the issues involved in this ongoing conflict between an Australian corporation and the people of Malaysia.
What are the major concerns of the people of Kuantan about the building of this rare earths refinery by the Australian company Lynas?
Jade Lee: The world's largest rare earth plant has been built near Kuantan and yet the local communities have not been consulted. They have not been given enough information about it and they have never given their consent.
Rare earth processing is very, very toxic. A lot of highly corrosive and concentrated acids will be used. While not many studies have been done on the health hazards of the rare earths themselves to humans and the environment, the few studies that have been done show that they are hazardous.
In China where rare earth processing has been happening on a huge scale there is an ecological and health disaster so bad that entire villages have had to be evacuated.
Why is Lynas is mining the ore in Australia but is choosing to refine it in Malaysia?
Because rare earth processing is so polluting, it would take years for Lynas to get a licence and approval for a refinery anywhere in Australia. But in Malaysia they were able to get approval in just two weeks!
The much lower cost of building a rare earth refinery in Malaysia, where Lynas does not have to abide by stringent environmental, health and social safeguards and can exploit cheap labour and materials, makes it extremely attractive to the company. And the icing on the cake for Lynas is that it will pay no tax for 12 years.
What will be some of the possible impacts on the people who live in and around Kuantan?
Next to the plant is the Balok River, into which Lynas will be discharging 500 tonnes of waste water every hour, once the plant is operating. This river is an important mangrove habitat. It is an important fish-breeding and spawning ground. People who live downstream, fish from the river and in the sea near the river mouth. They catch shellfish, like crabs, mussels and prawns in the mangrove floodplains.
The Balok River flows in a part of the South China sea that is a major fishing ground for Malaysia. Tourism is a growing industry along that coast. So the Lynas plant threatens several high-employment industries, just to allow one high-polluting, tax-exempted plant that won't emply many people.
How have the local people shown their opposition to the Lynas rare earth refinery?
They have tried all avenues possible. Two groups of residents have gone to the courts and have been given leave to appeal against the temporary operation licence.
Community groups have held public demonstrations in Kuantan and in the national capital Kuala Lumpur – even outside the Australian High Commission.
They have appealed to the Australian public, sending a delegation to Sydney (where Lynas has its HQ) and to Perth.
The Kuantan community will continue to seek out new avenues of legal challenge both in Australia and Malaysia to try and stop or stall this polluting project.
All this campaigning has had an impact on Lynas shares which are now worth a paltry 70 cents – compared to its peak share price of more than $2.
What has Lynas done to try and answer and discourage opposition to its rare earth refinery in Kuantan?
Lynas has engaged expensive PR consultants and put out very nice, green-looking brochures and booklets, in different languages, to promote the project. These have been distributed in the villages around the plant and to the general public in Malaysia. If only Lynas was willing to spend this money on doing proper environmental impact studies and respecting the need for stringent safeguards and safety standards!
Lynas has used defamation law to try to gag community activists and a number of independent internet media services from making further statements critical of its rare earth refinery.