Rare earths plant in Malaysia stopped by protests

Bulldozer scoop soil containing various rare earth to be loaded on to a ship at a port in Lianyungang, east China's Jiangsu province on September 5, 2010, for export to Japan. Now countries besides China, like Malaysia, are exploring how to make money mining for the key component in electronics.

Adriene Hill: Now to Malaysia, where an Australian company called Lynas has built a rare earths mineral factory -- the largest outside of China. But, the factory remains closed as the Malaysian government considers appeals by local activists.

From Malaysia, Jamie York reports.


Jamie York: Despite their name, rare earths metals are common and they're essential for virtually all high-tech devices -- from cell phones to wind turbines to missile guidance systems. But 95 percent of rare earths are refined solely in China. So the new refinery could have global effects, says Tracy Weslosky, an analyst at Rare Metal blog.

Tracy Weslosky: We want to see prices in the rare earth sector that are not going to fluctuate like they have for the last two years every time the Chinese decide to change their export numbers.

But many Malaysians are opposed to the new refinery. Another recent protest brought some 4,000 people to the beach here in Kuantan, a city of some 70,000 on Malaysia's East Coast, just a few miles from the new refinery. Refining rare earths produces low-level radioactive waste. And Lynas has no approved plan for the storage of that waste.

Member of Parliament Fuziah Salleh says the refinery doesn't make sense for this community.

Fuziah Salleh: It's owned by Australians 100 percent. It only provides 350 jobs. I don't see the benefits. There's so much risk. We get the honor of being a dumping ground for the radioactive waste and we will not accept that.

Malaysians know this waste problem all too well. The last refinery that operated outside of China was also in Malaysia. It closed 20 years ago and after $100 million is still being decontaminated. Researchers and physicians saw a spike in leukemia and birth defects. The victims have never been compensated.

Many Malaysians are deeply skeptical that their government has learned from the past. But Lynas CEO Nick Curtis says that his refinery is cleaner and, in fact, it's Malaysia's past that drew him here.

Nick Curtis: We felt that there was a silver lining here. Malaysia had built off the back of that error a body of regulation and a body of approval processes which was as good as anywhere in the world.

Opponents have vowed to continue fighting. They say if you want a steady supply of rare earths take on the risk and reap the rewards where regulations are strict and the process is more transparent.

In Malaysia, I'm Jamie York for Marketplace.


Jamie York reported from Malaysia with support from the International Reporting Project.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...