I’m writing in response to Gan Pei Ling’s article What’s wrong with a rare earth plant, here?
Factual inaccuracies on both sides of the Lynas rare earth plant controversy have given rise to a third constituency — environmentalists who believe in the possibility of a technological fix to the problem.
I take Gan’s recent piece to be one of the more fleshed-out statements of this emergent position. In the spirit of constructive debate, I would like to respectfully disagree with some of her assumptions.
Malaysia better than China?
Gan suggests we shouldn’t cry, “Not in My Back Yard!” because Malaysia can potentially produce rare earths to higher environmental standards than China. She also suggests that forcing Lynas out of Gebeng will place greater burdens on Chinese citizens.
But will Malaysia really do better than China in enforcing better environmental standards? In some areas China is raising standards to European levels, whereas in Malaysia some of our environmental quality guidelines are several times worse than the standards advocated by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Malaysia, for example, recommends an exposure limit of 320μg/m3 over the period of an hour for nitrogen dioxide. The WHO recommends only 200 μg/m3. For the small particulate matter known as PM10, the figure for Malaysia is 150μg/m3 over a 24-hour period, whilst the WHO recommends only 50 μg/m3.
Alternatives to rare earths
Gan also implies that rare earth processing is inevitable as rare earths are increasingly crucial to electronic consumer gadgets and for green technologies such as wind turbines.
But this position begs the question — are there cleaner substitutes for rare earths that can deliver similar magnetic power-to-size ratios? This isn’t a question for Lynas to answer, but one that needs to go out to the laboratory-industrial complex.
Is the plant itself necessary? Can recycling of waste rare earth products happen in an economically viable and environmentally safe way? This may hang on the outcome of the US case against China at the World Trade Organization.
Can the manufacturing process be made safer? Sadly, despite having months to propose a credible permanent waste management plan, Lynas has nothing to offer.
This bodes ill. Lynas is to be the main plant outside of China. Presumably, rare earth refining in China doesn’t consider permanent waste management. So, to date, the rare earths industry has never come up with a permanent waste management plan.
The Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB)’s poor track record in defending public safety in Bukit Merah and their obfuscatory behaviour in relation to Lynas also does not inspire confidence.
Lynas isn’t just a waste management and production problem. It’s also an economic one. Gan mentions jobs and repeats the government’s argument that downstream industries may benefit from its presence.
We already have downstream industries here. One is a Japanese company specialising in magnetising rare earth magnet blocks. But Malaysian companies typically only benefit from such arrangements by utilising cheap foreign labour to work in factories, equipped with foreign-owned technology. The financial benefits accruing to Malaysia would not be huge, especially if the foreign firm gets the 12-year tax holiday that has already been extended to Lynas.
This is just one problem that goes beyond Lynas and touches on our industrial policy. It is very difficult for Malaysian industries to move up the value chain. We should be wary of glib solutions that don’t address the economic context.
Taking developed countries’ waste
Lynas isn’t just Australia, Malaysia and China’s problem. This triangular geography detracts from the fact that the Lynas plant in Gebeng represents a very old practice of relocating toxic industries to Third World countries because our standards are lower and the lives of our people worth less. We aren’t doing China a big favour by hosting Lynas. Instead we would, in this respect, become China.
By putting this refinery in Malaysia, Lynas/Australia gets a neater way to bypass the Basel Convention strictures which restrict transboundary shipment of waste. In particular, it bypasses the convention’s Ban Amendment, proposed by none other than Malaysia, which opposes shipping waste from OECD to non-OECD countries. By siting Lynas in Gebeng they generate waste in situ, therefore no trans-shipment takes place and Malaysia is saddled with the waste. The “ship the waste back to Australia” proposal is a red herring.
I believe that minerals should be processed in their country of origin, especially if the country has advanced industrial facilities and environmental standards. I believe Lynas took advantage of the fact that its facility didn’t require public consultation under Malaysian law at the time. Early reports suggest that playing off different jurisdictions was clearly a factor for Lynas.
We should not play into the machinations of a corporation seeking to avoid or diminish accountability. Nor should we ignore our own culpability in consuming rare earth industry products. We should raise questions about planned obsolescence in such consumer goods and the difficulties and hazards of either disposing of them or recovering valuable components.
The fear of radiological pollution is not necessarily irrational since there are such victims in Malaysia. There is no safe level of ionising radiation above background levels, even if claims are made that Lynas waste is low level. In 2005, long-term studies by the US National Academy of Sciences determined that “the smallest dose has the potential to cause a small increase in risk to humans.”
It may be possible that processed blocks of thorium can be safely handled by bare hands, but that hasn’t been the case in Bukit Merah’s history where people inhaled or ingested fine particles. The outlook for the Gebeng community is bleak as Lynas is silent on their long-term waste disposal plan. Bleaker still, that the Malaysian government is eagerly defending a company over the well-being of its citizens.
While we should push the Stop Lynas campaign to be better, we shouldn’t let perfection become the enemy of the good. Environmentalists need to realise that the Lynas issue is also one of human rights, governance, greed and transnational capital. I don’t think 15,000 people came out in Kuantan just for an environmental issue. Under the green was yellow.
Yin Shao Loong
Selangor government environmental policy advisor
27 Mar 2012