1979 – 2015 – the story of Malaysia’s thorium pollution at Bukit Merah

The Star has discovered that 80,000 200-litre drums containing radioactive waste are currently being kept at the dump located in the Kledang Range behind Papan town. The site is about 3km from Bukit Merah and Papan and about 15km from Ipoh. And the waste is thorium hydroxide, not amang.


Chronology of events in the Bukit Merah Asian Rare Earth developmenthttp://www.consumer.org.my/index.php/health/454-chronology-of-events-in-the-bukit-merah-asian-rare-earth-developments
 Eight men — a welder, a shoemaker, a general worker, a pensioner, a barber, a tractor driver, a crane-operator and a cancer victim who was to die shortly — sued Asian Rare Earth in 1985 on behalf of themselves and 10,000 other residents of Bukit Merah and the environs in Perak. They wanted to shut down this rare earth plant in their village near Ipoh because its radioactive waste was endangering their lives.

When the Mitsubishi joint venture plant opened over 1982, the villagers soon began complaining of the factory’s stinging smoke and bad smell which made them choke and cry. Worse was to come. Their health began failing, indicated not only by frequent bouts of coughs and colds, but a sharp rise in the incidence of leukaemia, infant deaths, congenital disease and lead poisoning.

For the first time in Malaysian legal history, an entire community has risen to act over an environmental issue, to protect their health and environment from radioactive pollution.

Below is the chronology of what happened when a radioactive rare earth plant was set up in Bukit Merah. Today, about 30 years later, the Government is allowing a new rare earth plant to be set up by Lynas in Gebeng, Kuantan. This new project should be scrapped if the Malaysian Government puts the health of Malaysians before profits.

1979  November: The Asian Rare Earth Sdn Bhd (ARE) is incorporated to extract yttrium (a rare earth) from monazite. The major shareholders are the following: Mitsubishi Chemical Industries Ltd (35%), Beh Minerals (35%), Lembaga Urusan dan Tabung Haji or the state-owned Pilgrims’ Management Fund Board (20%) and other bumiputra businessmen (10%). ARE seeks the advice of the Tun Ismail Research Centre (Puspati) 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, will be kept in view of its potential as a source of nuclear energy.

1982  June : Residents of Parit in Perak learn that a nine-acre site six kilometres away has been chosen by the government as a storage dump for ARE’s radioactive waste.

30 June : Following strong protest by the residents’ committee and other political and social organisations, the plan is scrapped by the government which begins to look for another site to locate the dump.

11 July : ARE factory begins operations at 7.2 km Jalan Lahat in Bukit Merah New Village.

1983  November : Residents of Papan (about 16 kilometres from Ipoh) find out that ARE is building trenches of a waste dump near their town to store radioactive waste. The site had been picked by the government.

1984

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

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

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

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

28 June : The Minister of Science, Technology and Environment, Datuk Amar 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. In the meanwhile, ARE continues operating, dumping the thorium waste into an open field and pond next to the factory.

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

4 July : About 2,000 people continue with the demonstration despite an order from the Perak Chief Police Officer to call it off.

18 July : A Bukit Merah Action Committee is formed, comprising residents from 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 high levels of radiation exist at the open field and pond next to the ARE factory in Bukit Merah. One reading taken by SAM officials in a recent visit was 43,800 millirems/year, 88 times higher than the maximum level permitted by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) for the public.

29 August : Michael O’Riordan from the British National Radiological Protection Board is invited by the government to inspect the dump site in Papan.

19 September : A three-man team from the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) visit the Papan site at the invitation of the Malaysian government. They declare the trenches there as unsafe………….

1992

11 July : The people of Bukit Merah win their suit against ARE. The factory is ordered by the Ipoh High Court to shut down within 14 days. ARE announces that it will appeal to the Supreme Court.

23 July : ARE files an appeal at the Supreme Court against the Ipoh High Court order to cease operations. PARC chairman Hew Yoon Tat and Lau Fong Fatt, one of the plaintiffs in the suit against ARE, meet top management personnel of Mitsubishi Chemical in Japan. They are told that ARE filed the appeal without the corporation’s consent.

23 December 1993: The Supreme Court overturned the High Court decision on 2 grounds. The Court was of the opinion that ARE’s experts were more believable in terms of the results of the tests conducted by them showing that radiation was within permissible levels. Secondly, the Supreme Court said that 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. ……Despite the success of ARE in their appeal, the company later stopped operations and began cleaning up, due to public pressure both nationally and internationally.

1994

19 January 1994: ARE announced the closure of its Bukit Merah plant………

2003

A decommissioning and decontamination exercise started in 2003 and 2005.

2010

13 June 2010 : Former premier Dr. Mahathir Mohamad disagreed with the proposal for Malaysia to build nuclear power plants and reported that “a small amount” of nuclear waste was buried in Perak.

Mahathir said, “In Malaysia, we do have nuclear waste which perhaps the public is not aware of. We had to bury the amang (tin tailings) 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 has discovered that 80,000 200-litre drums containing radioactive waste are currently being kept at the dump located in the Kledang Range behind Papan town. The site is about 3km from Bukit Merah and Papan and about 15km from Ipoh. And the waste is thorium hydroxide, not amang.

In fact, it is only January this year that work finally began on the building of a proper underground storage facility called an engineered cell (EC).

The ongoing cleanup of the 30-year-old problem is estimated to cost a massive RM300 million.

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