History will repeat itself, says Bukit Merah activist
Hew Yoon Tat (left), who had since the 1980s championed an anti-radioactive action committee in his home village in Bukit Merah, Perak – where Malaysia had its first rare earth processing plant – believes the new plant will never gain public approval.
“I think the Lynas project will still go on, because there is already a contract. How long it will last is another question…
“Lynas might end up like Bukit Merah, because the people there will protest,” he said in an interview with Malaysiakini at his home in Bukit Merah.
Recounting his experience in leading sustained protests against the Asian Rare Earth (ARE) factory in Bukit Merah, Hew said he found it hard to see how business and government interests could reconcile with the interests of the locals, who would have to live with whatever risks that came with such projects.
In the ARE case, he said, the residents simply couldn’t agree on whether or not the controversial factory was safe as “expert panels” formed by both sides came out with conflicting results.
The panel formed by the locals determined that the factory was a public health hazard, while the panel formed by the government and factory operator Mitsubishi Chemical found it to be safe.
The 68-year-old remains deeply sceptical of the government’s decision to set up an international and independent expert panel to study the Lynas project, saying it appears to him as a mere placebo for deepening fears of potential radiation poisoning.
“In my opinion, what Lynas is doing and the panel set up by the government are merely to pacify the people just for the moment, and finally, it will be justified that the rare earth plant is safe.
“The panel is just to comfort the people, so that they don’t protest anymore… AELB (Atomic Energy Licensing Board) must have already issued the licence to Lynas,” Hew said.
“What will they do? Pull it back? It won’t be easy because it (Lynas) is from a foreign country. How will you explain that to the foreign investors?”
‘Give the people a voice’
Despite his suspicions over the international panel mooted by the government, Hew is willing to give it the benefit of doubt – so long as the people are given equal representation on the panel.
He dismissed the government’s assurances of the soon-to-be formed panel’s impartiality, saying that there would be little in terms of check-and-balance if the people directly affected by the plant were not allowed to appoint their own experts.
“There must be experts from both sides on the panel, so that it is just and transparent. If the hiring is only done by the government, the outcome will not be good,” he said.
Lynas has invested some RM700 million to build the plant, which it intends to complete and begin test runs by September this year.
Once up and running, Lynas claims, Malaysia will benefit from multiplier effects that will generate over RM400 million in annual operating expenditure, create 350 jobs and at current rare earth prices, increase the country’s export revenue to over RM8 billion or approximately one percent of the gross domestic product.
However, the project has met with strong protests from locals and opposition politicians, who claim that Lamp will turn Gebeng and nearby Kuantan into a second Bukit Merah.
The Bukit Merah debacle in Perak took place between 1980s and early 1990s, when Japanese company Mitsubishi Chemical ran its Asian Rare Earth factory which processed tin tailings to extract rare earth compounds.
However, Mitsubishi Chemical’s failure to manage the radioactive waste produced by the Bukit Merah plant created what is now arguably Asia’s largest radioactive waste clean-up.
The radiation from the factory’s operations has been blamed for scores of deaths in nearby villages due to various illnesses, particularly leukaemia.