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Activists Fear Toxic Pollution from Malaysia Rare Earths Plant

Facility near South China Sea slated to be largest rare earths processing operation outside China

HANOI —  Citizen groups in Malaysia are opposing a new rare earths processing plant on the country's eastern coast.

Anti-Lynas protest Photo by Flickr user avlxyzLocal environmentalists echo scientists' claims that the plant will contaminate watersheds and
groundwater, and that the Australian mining company, Lynas, has not yet produced a safe
plan for disposing of the plant's radioactive wastes.

The Australian company behind the project, which received a temporary operating license in September, says the plant complies with Malaysian and international laws. But local activists echo scientists' claims that the plant will contaminate watersheds and groundwater, and that the company has not yet produced a safe plan for disposing of the plant's radioactive wastes.

Rare earths minerals — a set of 17 related metals such as lanthanum and europium — are key ingredients in a range of high-tech products, from iPhones to wind turbines. They are not so much "rare" as difficult to extract. China holds half of the world’s rare earth deposits, about 55 million tons, according to the US Geological Survey. The United States is a distant second with an estimated 13 million tons. Smaller deposits have also been found in India, Australia, and parts of the former Soviet Union.

China accounts for more than 95 percent of the world’s rare earths production, but has restricted rare earths exports since 2010. That has fueled a scramble to set up rare earths projects across several continents. Companies are now surveying or mining rare earths in Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Greenland, India, and other countries. Although rare earths prices tumbled last year, the US Environmental Protection Agency reported in December that it’s highly likely some rare earth elements will be in short supply by 2014. 

Mining and processing rare earths produces toxic waste that is often contaminated with the low-level radioactive element Thorium, which is known to cause cancer. China's central legislative body, its State Council, admitted last year that the country's rare earths boom has caused landslides, soil erosion, "clogged rivers," and had other negative environmental impacts. Some scientists and environmentalists worry about the potential impacts of new these rare earths projects — especially those cited in countries with loose regulatory frameworks. 

The new plant in Malaysia, operated by the Australian company Lynas, will be the largest rare earths processing operation outside China once it begins exporting finished products. Raw materials will be mined at the company's Australia mine and transported to Malaysia by ship. Citizen groups have fought the plant all the way through the approval process. They accuse Lynas of opening its plant in Malaysia partly because the Southeast Asian country's environmental laws are laxer than Australia's.

A January study  by the Germany-based Institute for Applied Ecology, or Oeko-Institut, found that Lynas has not developed an adequate solid waste management plan for its factory. The study — commissioned by the activist group Save Malaysia, Stop Lynas! — said a safe disposal plan is a "prerequisite" to producing waste, but the company's current approach to cleaning up its waste and preparing for decommissioning is "neither state-of-the-art nor reliable and transparent."

"It confirms our fear that the Lynas plant is not as good as Lynas would like us to believe," says Lee Tan, an Australian activist who has advised the Save Malaysia, Stop Lynas! campaign. 

But Alan Jury, a Lynas spokesman, defended the plant, saying it complies with applicable international and Malaysian laws, and that the company's plans have been reviewed by the International Atomic Energy Agency. (In 2011, the agency recommended that the Malaysian Atomic Energy Licensing Board require Lynas to submit a plan for decommissioning the plant “before the start of operations.”)

Activists have said the plant's location — swampland near the South China Sea that is prone to flooding and typhoons — is not appropriate for a factory that Lynas estimates will produce as much as 1.2 metric tons of toxic "residue" over the next 20 years. But Jury told Earth Island Journal earlier this month that the plant, which sits inside an industrial park  along with several other petrochemical operations, has been designated for industrial uses and was not impacted by recent monsoonal flooding in the area. 

Lynas plans to turn wastes from its plant into construction materials and other commercial products. Jury said if the products are not approved for use in Malaysia, they will be exported "in a form acceptable for international markets and in accordance with all Malaysian regulations and international conventions." 

According to Jury, the Malaysian government granted Lynas a temporary operating license in Sept. 2012 on the conditions that it present a permanent plan for solid waste disposal site within 10 months and develop a plan to produce commercial by-products of its waste that have radioactivity levels below acceptable thresholds. "Lynas is confident of satisfying these conditions," he said. 

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