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Arrests at Malaysian Rare Earths Refinery Protests

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Asia Life

Arrests at Malaysian Rare Earths Refinery Protests

Locals and activists fear the refinery, operated by an Australian company, will generate radioactive waste.

An Australia-based environmental activist faces the possibility of a two-year prison sentence, in Malaysia, after being arrested while protesting against the world’s largest rare earth refinery.

Natalie Lowrey, who was born in New Zealand and lives in Sydney, was demonstrating with a one thousand-strong throng, at the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP) in Kuantan, Malaysia, when she was detained and imprisoned, along with 15 other protestors who have since been released. Lowrey remains in detention at the Kuantan Police Station.

Tully McIntyre, a campaigner who works with Lowrey and is currently in Malaysia, told The Diplomat that authorities were not being clear about whether charges have been laid but her colleague is being held under two laws, one relating to unlawful assembly and the other pertaining to violation of an immigration permit.

The refinery — run by Australian company Lynas Corporation Ltd  — began processing rare earth ore, mined at Mount Weld in the desert of Western Australia, and shipped to the port of Kuantan, in 2012. The project has been hampered by a diverse coalition of campaign groups that is creating hurdles, with the aim of having the plant closed down, including launching legal action to see the company’s temporary operating license revoked. That bid was unsuccessful but the rare earth venture continues to galvanize a groundswell of grass roots opposition.

Critics of the plant claim it will generate 28,000 tons (the equivalent of 126 Olympic-sized swimming pools) of solid waste containing radioactive by-products annually. Most controversial in the waste cocktail is thorium, a mildly radioactive element that is toxic in large doses and easily spread through wind and water. Exposure to thorium is tied to increased risk of cancer. Although the sprawling plant is located on the Gebeng industrial estate, about 30,000 people live within a 2km radius and 700, 000 reside within 25 km of the refinery.

More than 1.2 million people signed a petition calling for Lynas to close its plant and thousands have taken to the streets on multiple occasions to express their opposition to the rare earth refinery operating in Malaysia. The presence of the facility has sparked one of the biggest environmental movements in Malaysian history; one political analyst described the protests as ‘’unprecedented.’’

The fact this issue has spurred fervent opposition should not come as a surprise to anyone who is aware of what Mitsubishi Chemical left in its wake more than two decades ago. Residents in Bukit Merah blame this company for birth defects and a spike in cases of leukemia, stemming from exposure to radioactive materials from its rare earth refinery. The plant was closed in 1992 and one of the biggest clean up operations, in the rare earth industry was conducted, at a cost of nearly $100 million.

And while technology and industry expertise has obviously advanced since then, Lynas’s assurances of safety are failing to soothe alarmed Malaysians who fear a repeat of history, particularly given the lack of transparency surrounding the proposed location of the company’s permanent waste disposal site. Malaysia’s regulator – the Atomic Energy Licensing Board – has reportedly approved the company’s proposal, without publicly disclosing the suggested site, saying that it meets the criteria, should a facility be required in future. Lynas is developing ways to use the waste for commercial applications – by mixing the radioactive part with lime and diluting its thorium concentration to a level accepted under international standards – such as tetrapods that are used to build artificial reefs, as well as road and building materials.

Rare earths are a group of 17 elements used in everything from smart phones and solar panels to weapons systems. Rare earth elements play a key role in the construction of clean energy technologies such as electric cars and wind turbines, but the human and environmental hazards of extracting and processing the minerals present a major green dilemma.

Contrary to their name, rare earths are not particularly rare, but securing licenses to mine and refine them can be a lengthy struggle in developed countries with strict environmental regulations. This explains why countries with more lenient environmental and labor laws are sought and why China, which only has an estimated 23 percent of the world’s rare earth reserves, maintains a monopoly of around 95 percent of global production. As Keith Bradsher wrote in the New York Times, ‘‘Refining rare earth ore usually leaves thousands of tons of low-level radioactive waste behind. So the world has largely left the dirty work to Chinese refineries – processing factories that are barely regulated and in some cases illegally operated, and have created vast toxic waste sites.’’

Lynas’s refinery in Malaysia will wrestle some control away from China, meeting almost 20 percent of global demand when it reaches full capacity. Crikey reported that the company – which will generate $1.7 billion a year in exports for Malaysia (about one percent of the entire economy) – was given a 12-year tax holiday.

An article in The Diplomat points to another possible game changer on the rare earth stage, with the discovery of the largest rare earth oxide deposits in North Korea, a country in which ‘’environmental regulations and labor conditions would not be a factor.’’

As companies vie for their slice of the lucrative rare earth pie, China is dealing with the devastation of decades of mostly unregulated rare earth mining and refining, spending billions to rectify the damage. In 2012, the government released a white paper which conceded that: “Excessive rare earth mining has resulted in landslides, clogged rivers, environmental pollution emergencies and even major accidents and disasters, causing great damage to people’s safety and health and the ecological environment.’’

Turning back to Malaysia now, where activist Lowrey is still locked up for standing in solidarity with communities resisting the presence of the rare earth processing plant.

Last Saturday, activists created a blockade outside the Lynas facility, following a series of campaign actions held around the country. The rally, labeled ‘‘622: Shut Lynas Down,’’ was led by the Malaysian movement Himpunan Hijau (Green Assembly), which reportedly has the backing of political coalition Pakatan Rakyat. On Sunday, a scuffle between police and protestors broke out, interrupting what had been a peaceful assembly, involving families with young children.

Rare earth campaigner, McIntyre said that two Malaysians were injured in the clash; one was sent to the nearby intensive care unit for treatment but has since been discharged.

McIntyre explained that moments after the scuffle began, Green Assembly chairperson, Wong Tack, sat down in meditation to diffuse the situation, with surrounding protestors following his lead. After ignoring police orders to disperse, a number of protestors who were ‘’sitting down quietly’’ (including Lowrey) were arrested. However, she is the only person still imprisoned as a result of the protest.

Photojournalist Damian Baker filmed the scene.

McIntyre relayed a message from Lowrey in a recent media release, “I feel very strongly about this issue, as there isn’t enough transparency about the waste management at the refinery…If you spend a moment in this community, you would realise these people are…everyday people that are genuinely concerned about the plant’s operations and its management of waste.’’

McIntyre, like all of Lowrey’s supporters, is hoping for the best-case outcome — that Lowrey is released without charge and is able to return home as soon as possible.

Lowrey has not been active on social media since Monday when she thanked her friends and fellow campaigners for their supportive messages, reassured them that she was fine and relayed her uncertainty about when she would be deported.

An Avaaz petition to secure Lowrey’s release has attracted almost 13,000 signatures in just a few days. The hashtag, #FreeNatLowrey, was created to raise awareness about her plight and updates are being posted on the ‘’Stop Lynas’’ website.

Greens senator Lee Rhiannon told The Age that Lowrey had been working with ‘’an increasing number of Malaysians who are realising that what this Australian company is doing is wrong…You don’t process minerals and then dump the waste on another country.’’

This is precisely the message that Lowrey has been campaigning to spread: ‘’We believe Malaysian lives are just as valuable as Australians.’’

Gemima Harvey (@Gemima_Harvey) is a freelance journalist and photographer.