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.
However, 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 Corp.
“Look at my hands. The skin is peeling,” said a 68-year-old local resident who gave only his surname, Ng.
“When I go to a local bar, the women just take off, afraid that if I touch them they will be infected,” he said angrily of a mystery skin disorder he has endured for years.
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.
However, the waste that 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 US$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.
China’s control of about 95 percent of world supply has raised concerns.
However, Lynas has been dogged by protests by environmentalists and residents who fear a repeat of Bukit Merah, and the anti-Lynas sentiment has galvanized a nascent “green” movement in Malaysia.
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 leukemia cases.
Jayabalan said that he had documented at least 11 deaths because of blood poisoning, brain tumors and leukemia.
When the plant opened, villagers immediately complained of a stinging smoke and foul odor. Local ignorance meant that 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,” he said.
Mitsubishi Chemicals closed the plant in 1994 after a mounting public outcry, but the government has neither admitted nor denied radiation poisoning in the village.
The only payout by the company was a 500,000 ringgit (US$158,000) lump sum to the local community to aid victims in 1994.