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Lessons from Bukit Merah

 | March 21, 2012

Will the Gebeng story be a replay of the tragic saga that began in 1979 and is yet to end?

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To understand today, we sometimes have to look back at yesterday. To understand why there is so much opposition to the Lynas rare earth plant, we have to look at the sad history of Bukit Merah New Village, just a few kilometres south of downtown Ipoh.

Life changed forever for the mainly Hakka community of Bukit Merah after Asian Rare Earth Sdn Bhd (ARE) began operations there in July 1982 to extract yttrium, a rare earth, from monazite.

Within a few years, the villagers began noticing physical defects in their newborns, and at least eight leukaemia cases were confirmed. Medical examinations on children in the area found that nearly 40% of them suffered from lymph node diseases, turbinate congestion and recurrent

rhinitis. Seven of the leukaemia victims have since died.

Equally heartrending is the parallel story of the villagers’ attempt to stop the ARE operations. It was a saga that ran for more than two decades, and it pitted the villagers, helped by various civic organisations, against big business and powerful state authorities. An exercise to decommission the ARE plant finally began in 2003, but the work to decontaminate the area is still going on and is estimated to cost RM300 million. The New York Times called it “the largest radiation cleanup yet in the rare earth industry”.

ARE was a collaboration between Mitsubishi Chemical Industries Ltd (35%), Beh Minerals (35%), Lembaga Urusan dan Tabung Haji (20%) and several Bumiputera businessmen (10%). The company was incorporated in 1979.

The Penang Consumer Association has compiled a chronology of events in the Bukit Merah tragedy to help us appreciate the tenacity of Malaysians who rose to act to protect their health and environment against a government that placed profit before the people’s welfare.

Here are some highlights:

1979

Soon after it was incorporated, ARE seeks the advice of the Tun Ismail Research Centre of the Science, Technology and Environment Ministry about radioactive waste produced by processing monazite. It is decided that the waste, the property of the Perak state government, would be stored with a view to profiting from it as a source of nuclear energy.

1982

June: Residents of Parit, Perak, learn that the government has earmarked a nine-acre site in their vicinity as a storage dump for ARE’s radioactive waste. They protested against this and gained the support of political and social organisations. The government scraps the plan and begins to look for another dump site.

July 11: ARE factory begins operations

1983

In November, residents of Papan, adjacent to Bukit Merah, find out that ARE is building trenches outside their town to store radioactive waste. The site was picked by the government.

1984

May 24: About 6,700 residents of Papan and nearby towns sign a protest letter and send it to the Prime Minister, the Perak Menteri Besar, the Health Minister, and the Science, Technology and Environment Minister.

May 31: About 200 residents from Papan protest against the proposed waste dump. They block the road leading to the site.

June 5: Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad says the government has taken every precaution to ensure safety and that construction of the Papan dump will go ahead.

June 18: About 300 Papan residents demonstrate for the second time against the proposed location of the dump.

June 28: The Science, Technology and Environment Minister Stephen Yong states that the Papan dump is safe because it is being built according to stringent standards. He challenges critics to prove that the dump will be hazardous to health and the environment. Meanwhile, ARE is dumping thorium waste into an open field and a pond next to its factory.

July 1: About 3,000 people, including women and children, hold a peaceful demonstration against the Papan dump.

July 18: A Bukit Merah Action Committee is formed, comprising residents of Bukit Merah, Lahat, Menglembu and Taman Badri Shah, to support the Papan residents. Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) sends a memorandum to the prime minister stating that radiation levels at the open field and pond next to the ARE factory are too high.

Sept 19: Three experts from the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) visit the Papan site at the invitation of the government. They declare the trenches there as unsafe.

Oct 5: A British physicist and safety analyst, William Cannell, is invited by the Papan residents to visit the dump. He finds the engineering work to be “extremely shoddy”.

Oct 21: An American expert, Edward Radford, is invited by the Papan residents to review the dump. He finds that the site is unsuitable for radioactive dumping and that the walls of the trenches were too thin and cracked in some parts.

Nov 7: A Japanese industrial waste expert, Jun Ui, is invited by the Papan people to inspect the waste dump. He finds it unsuitable for storing hazardous waste.

Nov 28: The Cabinet discusses reports submitted by two regulatory bodies. The report by the British National Radiological Protection Board said that residents would be safe only if certain conditions were observed by the Perak government and ARE. The second report by IAEA said the trenches did not meet required specifications.

Dec 9: More than 1,500 residents in Papan stage a one-day hunger strike to protest against the government’s decision to go ahead with the plan to locate the dump in Papan. Bukit Merah residents bring in a Japanese radiation and genetics expert, Sadao Ichikawa, to measure radiation levels at the open field and pond next to the ARE factory. He finds the levels there dangerously high, the highest at 800 times above the permissible level.

Dec 12: Acting prime minister Musa Hitam declares a personal interest in the Papan affair. He pays a visit to the dump.

1985

Jan 11: After a Cabinet meeting chaired by Musa Hitam, the government decides to relocate the proposed dump site to Mukim Belanja in the Kledang Range, about five kilometres from Papan and three kilometres from Menglembu.

Feb 1: Eight residents on behalf of themselves and the Bukit Merah residents file an application in the Ipoh High Court to stop ARE from producing, storing and keeping radioactive waste in the vicinity of the village. The Atomic Energy Licensing Act of 1984 is enforced. It ensures that operators of nuclear installations (including the government) are held liable for nuclear damage. A five-member Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB) is formed under the Act, with representatives from Puspati.

Oct 14: Justice Anuar Zainal Abidin of the Ipoh High Court grants an injunction to the Bukit Merah residents to stop ARE from producing and storing radioactive waste until adequate safety measures are taken. More than 1,500 residents of Bukit Merah turn up at court to hear the decision.

1986

Sept 22: ARE claims it has spent more than RM2 million to upgrade safety measures (as required by the court) that follow IAEA standards. It invites an American atomic energy expert, EE Fowler (formerly with the IAEA), to visit the factory. Fowler states that radiation levels near ARE facilities have met ICRP standards and that the factory is safe for operation.

Oct 5: About 3,000 residents in and around Bukit Merah stage a demonstration against ARE’s plan to keep radioactive waste in its permanent dump in the Kledang Range.

Oct 28: Ichikawa, on his second trip to Bukit Merah, reveals that radiation around the ARE factory is still above the acceptable level. He is denied entry into the factory.

Nov 16: A team from AELB checks out a few illegal thorium waste dump sites in Bukit Merah. It is assisted by ARE ex-contractor Ng Toong Foo, who had carried out the dumping. Readings at one dump are between 0.05-0.10 millirems/hour, above the maximum safety level of 0.057 millirems/hour set by the ICRP.

Nov 26: Residents of Bukit Merah, Lahat, Taman Badri Shah, Menglembu, Papan, Falim and Guntong form the Perak Anti-Radioactive Committee (PARC).

Dec 8: Minister Kasitah Gadam of the Prime Minister’s Department says that radiation levels at two illegal dumps in Bukit Merah checked by AELB are safe. He says that although the AELB found that the levels exceeded the normal radiation levels this does not pose a danger as such dumps are few in number.

1987

Feb 6 : Disregarding the High Court injunction to ARE to stop operations, the Malaysian AELB grants a licence to ARE to resume operations.

April 10: Fourteen foreign experts invited by PARC to Bukit Merah are denied entry into ARE. At a forum held in Bukit Merah, these experts concur that ARE presents severe health hazards.

April 12: About 10,000 people march through Bukit Merah in protest against the resumption of operations by ARE.

May 24: Federal Reserve Unit police disperse about 300 people demonstrating near the ARE plant. More than 20, including three women, are injured in two clashes. ARE’s construction work for a road to the proposed permanent dump site in the Kledang Range is halted by residents.

July 23: A Canadian doctor, Bernie Lau, is engaged by PARC to set up radon gas detectors outside ARE. He finds significant amounts of radon gas escaping from the plant.

Sept 7: The hearing of the suit filed by Bukit Merah residents against ARE begins before Justice Peh Swee Chin in the Ipoh High Court. About 1,000 show up in court to give their support.

Sept 11: Residents march from Bukit Merah to the Ipoh High Court for the last day of hearing. Their number in the court grounds swells to 3,000.

Sept 18: Bukit Merah residents file contempt proceedings against ARE for breaking the injunction granted to them by the Ipoh High Court in 1985.

Oct 27: More than 100 people are detained under the Internal Security Act. Among them are PARC officials. They are freed after two months.

November : ARE starts building the permanent waste dump in the Kledang Range.

1988

Jan 25: The trial resumes.

1990

Feb 13: The trial comes to a close after 65 days of hearing stretched over 32 months.

1992

July 11: The people of Bukit Merah win their suit against ARE. The Ipoh High Court orders the shutdown of the ARE factory within 14 days.

July 23: ARE files an appeal at the Supreme Court against the High Court order. Mitsubishi Chemicals in Japan tells PARC that ARE filed the appeal without the corporation’s consent.

July 24: Following an ex parte application by ARE, the Lord President of the Supreme Court suspends the High Court order to ARE to stop operations.

Aug 3: Over 2,000 people from Bukit Merah turn up at the Supreme Court to hear the appeal. However, the judges postpone the hearing to Aug 5 because of “pressure exerted by people picketing” outside the courtroom.

Aug 5: The Supreme Court allows an application by ARE to suspend the High Court order. According to the judges, the closure would bring hardship to the company and its 183 workers.

1993

March 15: The scheduled hearing of the appeal filed by ARE at the Supreme Court is postponed.

Dec 23: The Supreme Court says it overturned the High Court decision on two grounds. The court is of the opinion that ARE’s experts were more believable in the results of the radiation tests. Secondly, the judges say, the residents should have gone back to the AELB to ask that it revoke ARE’s licence, because AELB has the power to do so under the Atomic Energy Licensing Act. The Atomic Energy Licensing Act, however, does not have any provision for appeals by affected communities or the public for the revocation of a licence granted to a company.

Despite the success of ARE in their appeal, the company later stops operations and begins cleaning up, due to public pressure both nationally and internationally.

1994

Jan 19: ARE announces the closure of its Bukit Merah plant.

2002

Nov 6: ARE, in a letter to the Consumer Association of Penang, says it has not begun the decommissioning and decontamination of the Bukit Merah plant. It says this will happen only when the Perak government and ARE finalise an agreement.

2003

A decommissioning and decontamination exercise begins.

About seven years later, former premier Dr Mahathir Mohamad said “a small amount” of nuclear waste was buried in Perak.

“In Malaysia,” he said, “we do have nuclear waste, which perhaps the public is not aware of. We had to bury the amang in Perak, deep in the ground. But the place is still not safe. Almost one square mile of that area is dangerous.”

Following his remarks, The Star reported that 80,000 200-litre drums containing radioactive waste were being kept at the dump in the Kledang Range. The site is about 3km from Bukit Merah and Papan and about 15km from Ipoh. And the waste is thorium hydroxide, not amang.

The Papan-Bukit Merah story is a tragedy of betrayal of leadership. It is about people in power losing their moral compass to the pull of profit.

Will the Gebeng story be just as tragic?

Also read:

MP wants debate on Bukit Merah ‘radiation’


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