KUALA LUMPUR, March 30 — The federal government must learn from the mistakes of the Asian Rare Earth (ARE) plant in Bukit Merah, Ipoh, those leading protests against Lynas Corp’s rare earth refinery in Kuantan said today after an ARE worker’s son died last night.
They told The Malaysian Insider the Barisan Nasional (BN) administration must “stop gambling with people’s lives” after the death of Cheah Kok Leong, whose mother Lai Kwan blames congenital defects he was born with 30 years ago on radiation exposure from working at the plant while she was pregnant with him.
“How many more lives must we lose before Putrajaya learns its lesson?” said Kuantan MP Fuziah Salleh, who has led protests against Australian miner Lynas’s RM2.3 billion project there.
“I will do my best, so that not even one family will have to go through the same kind of suffering as Lai Kwan in Kuantan, STOP LYNAS!!” the PKR vice president added on micro-blogging site Twitter.
Save Malaysia Stop Lynas chairman Tan Bun Teet also said it was “sad that politicians are making decisions that capitalise on the forgetfulness of others.”
“Lai Kwan’s 30 years of suffering and other deaths in Bukit Merah, although not proven to be a direct result of ARE, should convince the government to show more prudence and care,” said the leader of the group of Kuantan residents opposed to the plant that has raised fears of radiation pollution.
The 11,000-strong Bukit Merah community blames the ARE plant for birth defects and eight leukaemia cases in the last five years, seven of which were fatal.
But radiation regulator Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB) has said it was unlikely that Lai’s child was born with mental defects because of her exposure to radiation, explaining that nerve tissue is the most resistant to radiation.
DAP MP Fong Po Kuan said that in her emergency motion on reports of unsafe radiation in the area that was debated in Parliament last week, she had called on the government “not to make the same mistake in Gebeng as it did in Bukit Merah in 1983.”
Fong’s Batu Gajah constituency includes Bukit Merah
“The issue is simple: stop Lynas and stop gambling with people’s lives,” she added.
Radiation around the Asian Rare Earth (ARE) plant in Bukit Merah and its permanent waste dumping site at Bukit Kledang, both in Perak, is still at a hazardous level after the factory closed 18 years ago.
This disturbing finding was recorded by anti-Lynas group Save Malaysia Stop Lynas (SMSL) during a fact-finding visit to Perak over the weekend.
According to SMSL chairperson Tan Bun Teet (right), his members armed with radiation reading devices were not allowed to enter the plant and dumping sites, but the radiation readings around both locations showed worrying results.
The reading near the plant site was around 0.19 microsievert per hour while the reading near the dumping site stood at about 0.2 microsievert per hour.
Both readings, if extrapolated to annual basis, are beyond the safe level of 1 milisievert per year as advised by the Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB), claimed Tan.
The average background reading of Malaysia is 0.05 microsievert per hour.
“It is regrettable that within the 1.7km buffer zone of the dumping site, we still found fish breeding, animal and vegetable farming activities (left),” said Tan.
However, AELB earlier claimed that the plant site has been decontaminated with radiation levels dropping from 0.65 microsievert per hour to 0.17 microsievert per hour, which is safe for human activities.
The board also claimed that it had requested the authorities to move illegal farms and squatters living within the buffer zone around the waste dump site.
The ARE plant run by Japanese company Mitsubishi Chemicals from the 1980s to the early 1990s, is blamed for spreading radiation poisoning in Bukit Merah due to alleged poor management of radioactive waste generated from processing tin tailings to extract rare earth.
The aftermath of the factory’s operations has been one of the largest radioactive waste clean-ups in Asia, with a permanent dumping site set up at the foot of nearby Bukit Kledang.
KUALA LUMPUR, March 30 — Cheah Kok Leong, the son of a worker at the Asian Rare Earth (ARE) plant in Bukit Merah, Ipoh, died last night, 30 years after being born with congenital defects his mother blamed on radioactive exposure.
His mother, Lai Kwan, had claimed she was pregnant with Cheah when working at the plant which was shuttered in 1992 due to public pressure over claims of radiation poisoning.
File photo of people in Kuantan signing a banner protesting against the building of the Lynas rare earths plant in Gebeng.
Dr Jayabalan A. Thambyappa, a toxicologist who worked with Bukit Merah residents after they blamed the refinery for birth defects and eight leukaemia cases within five years, confirmed the death when contacted by The Malaysian Insider this morning.
Seven of the leukaemia victims in the community of 11,000 have also died.
But radiation regulator Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB) has said it is unlikely that Lai’s child was born mentally retarded because of her exposure to radiation as nerve tissue is the most resistant to radiation.
Although there is no concrete proof that the plant, which is still undergoing a RM300 million cleanup exercise, contributed to Cheah’s condition, his death will likely add fuel to protests against another rare earths plant being built in Kuantan.
Lynas Corp has insisted its RM2.3 billion plant is safe with only low-level radiation waste being produced that the Australian miner says it will recycle into commercial products.
The project was on course for approval until the New York Times highlighted it a year ago, using the ARE plant as a cautionary tale.
The newspaper’s March 9, 2011 edition zeroed in on Lai’s story of how she decided to take up a better-paying job in the refinery.