Anwar calls for movement against Pahang rare earth plant

By Shannon Teoh, The Malaysian Insider

KUALA LUMPUR, March 12 — The RM700 million rare earth refinery being built near Kuantan is set to be a major election issue with Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim now calling for a campaign to alert residents there about the dangers of radiation pollution.

The massive earthquake in Japan yesterday and the resulting tsunami has also added fears about the plant in Malaysia’s east coast which faces the Pacific Rim’s ring of fire, the world’s active volcanic region. The 8.9 magnitude earthquake in Japan and the 10-metre high tsunami it sent surging into cities and villages, sweeping away everything in its path.

Australian mining company Lynas Corporation has begun construction of the rare earth refinery in Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s home state, raising fears of a repeat of the radiation pollution in Bukit Merah, Perak that has been linked to at least eight leukemia cases in the local community there.

The Asian Rare Earth plant is now the subject of a quiet US$100 million (RM303 million) cleanup exercise by Mitsubishi Chemical which shut down the facility nearly two decades ago.

“This issue is important but the public is generally not well-versed in the negative effects. I propose we prepare leaflets to be distributed,” the opposition leader wrote to his Pakatan Rakyat (PR) colleagues in an email this week.

Anwar, who is facing a second sodomy charge in 12 years, has been going around the country for ceramahs to promote his PR’s economic programmes and promises in its Buku Jingga for the next general elections, widely expected to be held this year.

The New York Times reported this week that the refinery in Gebeng, just 70 kilometres north of Najib’s Pekan constituency, will be the first such plant outside China in nearly three decades.

Environmental hazards have made other countries wary of rare earth processing, leaving China to control 95 per cent of global supply of rare earth metals.

The metals are crucial to high technology products such as the Apple iPhone, Toyota Prius and Boeing’s smart bombs.

The newspaper said that if prices of the metals stayed at current levels, the Lynas plant would generate over RM5 billion a year in exports for Malaysia, or nearly one per cent of its entire economy.

However, Lynas corporate and business development vice president Matthew James has denied that the plant will be dangerous and told The Malaysian Insider that radiation will be minimal as the raw material used has only 2 per cent of the thorium found in the material processed in Bukit Merah.

Thorium is the radioactive element found in nearly all rare earth deposits.