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Prime Minister Dr Mahathir’s recent announcement in Tokyo that “Lynas will be allowed to carry on” regardless of whether the Australian company removed its radioactive waste from Malaysia came as a shock and disappointment to many Malaysians. Instead of insisting that Lynas remove the more than 450,000 tons of dangerous waste it has accumulated thus far in Gebeng (in violation of local regulations), Mahathir generously gave the company a free pass by offering to “spread” the waste around Malaysia!

It is, by all counts, a stunning betrayal and a shameful capitulation to Australian pressure. It prioritises profits ahead of the health of ordinary Malaysians and recklessly endangers our environment. Furthermore, it makes a mockery of the sterling efforts of our environment minister to ensure that Malaysia does not become Australia’s garbage dump.

People before profit

Mahathir’s main argument is that Malaysia cannot afford to lose the huge investment that Lynas represents; the more critical issue, however, is whether Malaysia can afford the huge health and environmental risks that Lynas clearly poses.

Lynas should never have been allowed to set up shop in Malaysia in the first place. If it was such a great project, why didn’t Lynas build their plant in Australia itself where the rare earth ores are mined?

Is it mere coincidence that the company chose to locate their hazardous processing facility in a country with less onerous environmental regulations than their own, with less effective enforcement and with a political system that can be easily manipulated?

It is telling (as Wong Tack, the MP for Bentong, pointed out in his recent letter to the Australian High Commissioner), that since setting up shop here, Lynas has violated a whole range of environmental regulations from storing radioactive waste in the open to storing more than the permissible amount of dangerous waste. And yet, our regulators and politicians continue to bend over backwards to appease them. No wonder they love it here!

Whichever way you look at it, the growing stockpile of radioactive waste is a ticking time bomb; the longer it remains in Malaysia, the greater the danger it poses. It is simply irresponsible to allow such massive quantities of dangerous material to accumulate without a clear and safe plan for its disposal.

Of course, Lynas likes to tout the potential commercialisation of its waste including its application to enhance crop productivity and in construction. Its claims are, however, premature at best; no one really knows the long-term impact of using recycled radioactive waste in agriculture.  Again, if it is such a great breakthrough, Lynas should test it out in Australia itself instead of using the people of Malaysia as their guinea pigs.

Absurd and flippant

Given the enormous risks involved, Mahathir’s suggestion to “spread [the radioactive waste] around somewhere so as not to have concentrated radioactive material in one place” is flippant, outrageous and ill-conceived. Where does he plan to spread the waste anyway? In Langkawi? Or perhaps a site might be found in Putrajaya, leadership by example and all that.

And, by offering the Australians a way out ahead of scheduled negotiations on the issue, Mahathir has undercut the efforts of his own environment minister to persuade Australian authorities to accept the waste. Why would Australia, which has always been reluctant to accept back the waste, now want to do so when Mahathir has made it clear that the company’s licence will be renewed regardless? Indeed, Australian authorities are now saying that Minister Yeo Bee Yin would be “wasting her time” visiting Australia to discuss the matter.

Another toxic legacy?

In 1982, another foreign rare earth manufacturer (Mitsubishi Chemical Industries) came in with all the right assurances, telling us how safe and wonderful their operations would be and how great it would be for the economy, only to leave behind a mammoth radioactive mess we are still dealing with decades after the plant closed.

Our politicians and regulators then were taken in by all those assurances; the people of Bukit Merah ended up paying a high price for their folly with leukaemia and birth defects. We must not make the same mistake again. The Bukit Merah disaster took place under Dr Mahathir’s first term as prime minister; he must not leave another toxic legacy behind for future generations.

Every Malaysian who cares about our environment and the health and well-being of future generations must strenuously oppose this inane and insane decision by the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government to allow Lynas to continue operating in Malaysia regardless of whether it removes its radioactive waste. The removal of every last ounce of Lynas’ toxic waste from our country as well as full and immediate compliance with all our environmental and health regulations should be non-negotiable. If PH cannot defend our rights, they no longer deserve our support.

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur |7th June 2019]