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Videos allege hazard from aluminium plants

 | September 6, 2013

YouTube clips show people complaining of illnesses attributed to the presence of a Press Metal Sarawak factory.


KUCHING: A group of independent documentary makers has produced videos alleging that two aluminium smelter plants in Sarawak pose health hazards to people living in the surrounding areas.

In a series of clips uploaded to YouTube, several people are interviewed about the health problems they have experienced since a company called Press Metal Sarawak set up a smelting plant in Balingian. The company now has another plant in Similajau.

They people featured in the clips complain of coughing, sleeplessness, kidney problems and other ailments.

The videos are produced by a group called People’s Documentary, described in its Facebook page as a “leading film maker of social and environmental films”.

The latest video in the series was uploaded last Sept 1. It features one Ngam ak Benang of Rumah Randi, Balingian, alleging that he complaining of coughs and headaches. He also mentions having diabetes, but it is not clear whether he attributes that to the presence of the smelting plant in the area.

Both the Balingian and Similajau plants apparently stopped operations for three weeks from June 27 due to a power outage. Ngam says there was no improvement in his health during that period.

“We got the diseases from the water we drink,” he says. “The water was polluted by powder emitted from the factory.

“If possible, I want the factory to pay us compensation and stop operations.”

The clip also shows images of the newer and bigger Press Metal plant in Similajau. A commentator says: “There will be three times greater amount of pollutants.”

A video dated Aug 23 shows a woman claiming that she has been suffering from a mysterious kidney condition.

“There is something wrong with my kidneys,” she says. “I’ve been treated twice in Sarawak General Hospital. The doctors already took samples from my kidneys three times now, but still they have not found what is wrong with them.”

She says she lives 4km from the Balingian plant and drinks rain water.

Breathing difficulties

In the same video, a Sarawak Dayak Iban Association (Sadia) official named Matek Geram says “four to five” longhouse residents in areas adjacent to the plant have been diagnosed as having Stage 3 cancer.

In another video, fisherman Laleh Tahak alleges that his livelihood has been adversely affected. He says he also plants cucumbers and peanuts and complains that he has yields have been reduced.

“Before the factory was built, my farms were very productive. I could have 200 kilo of cucumbers at one time.

“But now, people don’t even dare to eat the cucumbers I plant. They look like small monkeys. Who wants to eat them?”

He also complains of deteriorating health. “Nowadays me and my wife often have fever and coughing. My children too.”

Two YouTube videos uploaded last year by one “Leerang Bato” shows two people living near the Balingian plant claiming to have health complications that they attribute to the presence of the Press Metal plant.

One of the clips features, Sandy Dancan of Rumah Bansan, located 300 metres from the plant. She complains of having suffered skin irritations two years before the video was shot.

“It’s like a mosquito bite. When scratched, it would get swollen, became red spots. And then liquid would come out. And then it can spread to other parts of the body.”

She says the factory would emit putrid smoke in the morning and local residents would experience breathing difficulties.

The other clip, dated April 24, 2012, documents the alleged suffering of 150 people. They live in a longhouse situated 800 metres from the Balingian plant. It is alleged that 14.29% of have skin rashes, 16.33% have breathing difficulties, 18.37% have blurred vision, and 26.33% suffer from continuous coughing.

It also shows a four-year-old asthma patient, Vanessa Bija. Her mother alleges that the disease is a consequence of her employment in the plant.

“I worked at the factory in 2011,” says Cynthia Unau of Rumah Rawing. “I was pregnant at that time. A hospital nurse told me it was not safe for a pregnant woman to work in the factory, even outside it.”

Press Metal Sarawak later insisted that it operated in an eco-friendly manner and its human resources chief, Soh Siew Ong, was reported to have said the plant had not done any harm to the environment.

Soh also rejected allegations that water discharged from the plant had killed aquatic species in the surrounding areas, saying the plant discharged only clean gases into the air.

The plant manager, Siew Eng Fui, was quoted as saying that the raw material for the plant, alumina, had undergone strict tests before it was shipped from Australia.

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