One February morning in Kuantan, Malaysia, 16 people, including grandparents, farmers, office workers and businessmen, shaved their heads in a public protest. As he watched his hair fall, Winson Ooi said he felt a deep sense of injustice, anger and disappointment overwhelm him.
“In our tradition, shaving all of our hair off is a highly symbolic and serious act to show one’s strong feeling and sacrifice to mark one’s determination for a worthy cause,” Ooi said in a news release issued by Malaysian environmental group Himpunan Hijau 2.0. “I have to do this for my family.”
Ooi and his young son are just a few of the many citizens protesting the construction of the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant in Kuantan, a quiet town on the east coast of Malaysia. The Australian owned plant will process rare metallic elements used for items including iPhones, electric car batteries and wind mills shipped from a plant in Australia.
Protesters say they fear that radiation from the plant could be linked to a number of health concerns and argue that's why the corporation chose to build outside of Australia.
Lee Tan, an environmental consultant for the Climate Justice Program, was working in Australia at the Conservation Foundation when she heard about the Lynas project. A native of Kuantan, Tan said she felt it was her duty to come back and fight the company she says could put farmers, seafood producers and residents who drink local water at risk.
“The location of the plant is within 30 kilometers of a population of 70,000 people, my family and friends among them," she said in a Skype interview. "The waste water will be discharged into a natural river, which is a major seafood production area and a habitat of tropical mangrove."
The plant is expected to discharge 1,000 cubic meters of waste gas per hour, she said.
Despite public concerns, the Malaysia Atomic Energy Licensing Board recently granted Lynas a temporary operating license, which could translate to a permanent operating license if Lynas meets the board's requirements.
Board Director General Raja Dato’ Abdul Aziz Raja Adnan said waste water will be treated to comply with international standards. Acid spills will be contained in a bonded concrete structure, he said, and beaches surrounding Kuantan are too far away to be affected by radiation emitted by the plant.
Protesters criticize the Malaysian government’s quick and quiet approval of the plant and the absence of public consultation or a waste management plan. Many also argue that the history of past plants is an indicator of Lynas’ future. Similar plants and radioactive waste dumps have been closed in Papan, in western Malaysia, and Baotou, China, due to pollution of river water used for farming and links to lung cancers in workers.
Thirty years ago, Mitsubishi operated a refinery in the nearby city of Ipoh.
“Like Lynas, (the refinery) had no long-term waste management plan, and ad hoc arrangements eventually led to a situation of indiscriminate, clandestine dumping of radioactive thorium-containing wastes in and around Ipoh city,” said Chan Chee Khoon, social and preventive medicine professor at the University of Malaysia, in a phone interview. “The greater Kuantan community similarly faces the prospect unknown number of dump sites at unknown locations scattered in and around the city if Lynas does not come up with an acceptable plan for long-term waste disposal.”
Dr. T. Jayabalan, a physician in occupational medicine and toxicologist at the National Toxicology Center at the University of Malaysia, was heavily involved in the research of the Mitsubishi refinery. Jayabalan said the main issues involve waste disposal, the use of other chemicals in the extraction process and the widespread contamination of the surrounding habitat and population.
“We looked at the issue of young, healthy mothers living close to the plant experiencing miscarriages," he said. "We noted offspring born with congenital defects. Beyond that, we found at least eight cases of leukemia -- seven of which were acute lymphoblastic leukemia. One of the known causes of this type of leukemia is ionizing radiation."
But Cameron Morse, an outside external affairs coordinator for Lynas, said it's not accurate to compare Lynas with a plant like the Mitsubishi plant because the companies process different products.
“We don’t doubt (the Mitsubishi plant) had some real issues associated with it but our inputs and outputs are totally different,” Morse wrote in via e-mail.
Morse added that the International Atomic Energy Agency reviewed the Lynas plant in 2011 and affirmed its compliance with the highest health and safety standards. Morse said, it is also important to note that the plant is in a designated, large-scale specialist chemical and petrochemical industrial zone that already housed a number of multinational companies including BP Chemicals, Petronas and BASF.
Ionizing radiation is a concern of citizens because rare earth elements, while not radioactive themselves, are often found in conjunction with radioactivity. The Lynas Web site states that because the mineral concentrate used by the plant has such low levels of radiation, it is classified as “safe, non-toxic and non-hazardous by all international standards.”
Jayabalan, however, argues that there is no safe level of ionizing radiation.
“It is acceptable in terms of legal language but, in terms of public health, there is no such thing as safe radiation," he said. "If it were safe and such a financial gold mind, they wouldn’t transport the materials thousands of miles to Malaysia, they would build in Australia."
The campaign against Lynas reached new heights in late February, when an estimated 20,000 Malaysians joined a protest. Wong Tack, chairman of the Green Assembly 2.0 and organizer of the rally, said this is the first time an environmental issue has caused Malaysians to take to the streets in such large numbers.
“They are taking advantage of our corrupt system and of a non-functioning administration. They are coming in from the back door and attempting to use us as a dumping site. The people of this country will not accept it,” Tack said in a phone interview. “The voice of the people has been ignored, so now we have no choice but to bring down the plan ourselves.”