Bukit Merah, Malaysia. Thirty years have passed since Japan’s Mitsubishi Chemicals opened a rare-earths refinery in the Malaysian village of Bukit Merah, but although the plant is gone, its toxic legacy persists.
The facility was embraced by authorities as an advanced foreign investment that would help create jobs in poor Perak state in the country’s north. But a rise in leukemia and other health problems has left the site, now abandoned, as a silent warning to Malaysia as it touts a controversial new foreign rare-earths plant being built in the country’s east by Australia’s Lynas.
“Look at my hands. The skin is peeling,” a 68-year-old local resident who gave only his surname, Ng, said of a mystery skin disorder he had endured for years. “When I go to a local bar, the women just take off, afraid that if I touch them they will be infected.”
Ng, who ran a hauling business, was awarded a contract to dispose of radioactive waste from the then-new facility in 1982. The plant’s Japanese operators told him it could be used as fertilizer. But the waste he casually hauled away and disposed of in fields and rivers around Bukit Merah, home to 15,000 people, contained thorium, a carcinogenic radioactive chemical.
Lynas is putting the finishing touches on its $800 million rare-earths processing facility in Pahang state, a project billed by the government as an economic boost for the relatively undeveloped east coast.
Analysts say the plant, which will refine rare-earth ore brought from a Lynas mine in Australia, could help break China’s stranglehold on the mineral elements, which are used in high-tech gadgets ranging from iPods to missiles.
But Lynas has been dogged by protests by those who fear a repeat of Bukit Merah. Lynas vows the facility will be safe, but opponents say the risks are clear at Bukit Merah, a once-idyllic farming community that today is marked by dilapidated brown wooden houses and a falling population.
Residents and activists say the village and surrounding areas have seen increased rates of leukemia, birth defects, infant deaths, congenital diseases, miscarriages and lead poisoning in the years following the plant’s opening.
“Mitsubishi’s rare-earth refinery is Malaysia’s worst industrial tragedy,” said T. Jayabalan, a public health consultant who lived in Bukit Merah in the late 1980s, fighting for the plant’s closure and documenting at least 11 deaths due to blood poisoning, brain tumors and leukemia.
When the plant opened, villagers complained of a stinging smoke and foul odor. Local ignorance meant waste disposal was carried out with shocking recklessness.
“At one time, we dug a pit near a river in Bukit Merah and buried the waste,” Ng said. “Occasionally, lumps of wet thorium sludge would fall off the lorry and school children would walk pass it.”
Mitsubishi Chemicals closed the plant in 1994 after mounting public outcry, but the government neither admitted nor denied radiation poisoning in the village.
The only payout by the company was a 500,000 ringgit ($157,000) lump sum to the community to aid victims in 1994. A tacit understanding was reached under which Mitsubishi Chemicals would shut the facility in exchange for a moratorium on lawsuits. The plant has since been dismantled.
Radioactive waste that was previously kept in rusting metal drums has been removed and buried in an isolated limestone hills nearby. But environmentalists say the dump site remains a health threat.
Bukit Merah spotlights the conundrum around rare-earths processing. Consumers clamor for products that contain them, but there are major concerns over the environmental impact of processing the minerals. Opponents of the Lynas plant have seized on such fears to challenge the new facility.
It was due to open late in 2011 but has been delayed in part by government hesitation in granting an operating license to start production following protests by thousands. A license was awarded in February, but the government froze that pending a review by a parliamentary panel.
The panel, dominated by Malaysia’s ruling party, declared on June 19 that the plant was safe. It was not immediately clear when the license would be issued.
“We should not repeat the mistakes made at Bukit Merah,” Jayabalan said.
S. Panchavarnam, 56, remembers the pungent, choking smell she endured working at a timber mill adjacent to the plant in 1987. Pregnant at the time, she often fell ill.
Malaysia’s frequent heavy rains caused carelessly dumped waste from the refinery to flow into the timber yard. She cleaned it up with no protective gear and soon suffered swelling in her legs and hands.
Panchavarnam said her daughter Kasturi, now 24, has been plagued by health problems since birth, dropping out of college at 19 as a result. Kasturi was born with just one kidney, has a short neck and a pair of low-set eyes and continues to undergo treatment for persistent headaches.
Panchavarnam said Kasturi suffered from frequent dizzy and fainting spells.
“The rare earths factory has brought pain to our lives,” Panchavarnam said. When she comes home from work, she will just sit in the corner of the room quietly.”