Monday, November 21, 2011

Can a series of short films halt an impending environmental disaster called Lynas?

Madam Lai Kwan was pregnant in 1982 when she worked at the Mitsubishi rare earth refinery in Bukit Merah, Malaysia. This film is a peek into the life she has led since her child was born in 1983...

I applaud Tan Chui Mui's cinematic initiative, dubbed Survival Guide untuk Kampung Radioaktifwherein she recruited a group of young filmmakers to raise public awareness on an extremely serious issue through satire, humor and empathy. What prompted Tan to take action is the simple fact that she was born 33 years ago in a fishing village named Sungai Ular, a stone's throw from the site in Gebeng, Pahang, where Lynas Corporation is in the process of completing what is touted to be the world's largest rare earth processing plant.

Lynas Advanced Materials Plant under construction in Gebeng, Pahang

According to Fuziah Salleh, PKR member of parliament for Kuantan, Lynas submitted its Environmental Impact Assessment to the Pahang state government on 21 January 2008 - and it was approved in less than 3 weeks.

Rare earth processing in China: a health hazard
Something like that can indicate one thing only - a few powerful and privileged palms were heavily greased. Even more astounding, Malaysia's Ministry of International Trade and Industry granted Lynas the very next day a 12-year tax holiday. Undoubtedly, dishonest bureaucrats, bribeable panjandrums, and extremely lax environmental enforcement were the main reasons why Lynas picked Malaysia for its highly polluting rare earth processing plant - and the fact that Gebeng is situated in Pahang, Najib Razak's home state, may also be a factor.

Twenty years ago, Lynas would have met with little, if any, public resistance. However, times have changed. The people of Kuantan are up in arms about the imminent destruction of their peaceful, low-stress lifestyle. Indeed, the 700,000 residents of Kuantan district have good reason to be stressed out by Lynas's giant rare earth processing plant - because they live within a 35km radius of it.

Isengard, industrial stronghold of the dark wizard Saruman

Most of us know next to nothing about rare earth processing and what it entails. However, we have seen the aftermath of rare earth processing and what it does to the environment - particularly in China, which has been the world's #1 extractor and processor of rare earths over the last three decades. If you have seen Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, you would have a good idea what Mount Doom looks like. That's how the landscape is left after rare earth has been extracted... and Saruman's industrial hell, Isengard, gives you a rough idea how the landscape will look when these radioactive metals are processed.

Malaysia will have to be renamed Mordoria...

Lynas claims its rare earth processing plant will provide 350 jobs to Malaysians. Big deal - especially when Lynas will be exempt from paying taxes for 12 years on its projected earnings of approximately RM8 billion a year.

Sauron rules in Mordoria!
No surprise then that the BN government is wholly behind the project when it has already been paid an undisclosed amount as "a deposit against possible environmental damage." Apart from this, politically connected companies like Kencana Petroleum (whose CEO happens to be Mokhzani Mahathir, eldest son of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad) have been awarded lucrative construction contracts.

Lake poisoned by toxic waste from a rare earth processing plant
Radioactive waste water being pumped out from a Chinese rare earth processing plant.

~ New York Times