Tuesday, February 21, 2012

This is what I call world-class journalism... Thanks, Kiera!

Will Malaysians Get Cancer for Your iPhone or Prius?

I went to the site of a notorious rare-earth refinery - and investigated plans for a new one - to find out.

By Kiera Butler | Mon Feb. 13, 2012

Greetings from Malaysia! I'm here working on a reporting project about 17 elements at the bottom of the periodic table known as the rare earths, which are key to manufacturing all kinds of cutting-edge technology—from smartphones and laptops to wind turbines and hybrid-car motors to defense technology, including tank engines, radar and sonar systems, and navigation systems in smart bombs. For the last few decades, China controlled the world's market for rare earths, producing about 97 percent of the global supply. But in late 2010, China cut its exports by 35 percent to keep the valuable metals for its own manufacturers. The prices of rare earths shot up, and almost immediately mining outfits in other countries began cropping up.

One of the biggest to come on the scene is Lynas, an Australian company. Although the company will mine its materials in Australia, it hopes to build its refinery in Malaysia. It was granted a temporary license to operate last month; the company says that once it is up and running, it will be able to supply a fifth of the world's rare earths. If all goes according to plan, Lynas rare earths could soon be found in flat-screen televisions at your neighborhood Best Buy and Priuses at your local car dealership.

Since rare earths occur naturally with the radioactive elements thorium and uranium, safety is a major concern with using them. Engineers have expressed reservations about the safety of the Lynas refinery's design, as the New York Times has reported. Some Malaysians suspect that Lynas is choosing to refine in Malaysia in order to sidestep more stringent environmental regulations at home.

I've been traveling around with Lee Tan, an unflappable environmental consultant who grew up in Kuantan and now lives in Australia. This year, Lee has spent most of her spare time working to stop the refinery from opening. "My mom lives in Kuantan, and my brothers and sisters were thinking about retiring there," she says. "Now, they're not so sure."

You can't blame them for their concerns: Malaysia has hosted a rare-earth refinery before, with some painful results. From 1979-92, the Japanese company Mitsubishi ran a plant called Asia Rare Earth, where it processed the materials it needed to sell electronics to markets all over the world. In the years since, nearby villagers have seen birth defects and eight cases of childhood leukemia. Mitsubishi is still dealing with the mess; the New York Times called it "the largest radiation cleanup yet in the rare earth industry."


Kiera Butler is the articles editor at Mother Jones.