Malaysians hold “green” protest against rare earth refinery

Some 5,000 Malaysians staged a protest against a refinery for rare earth elements being built by the Australian mining company Lynas in Kuantan, Pahang state, Feb. 26. The protest—dubbed Green Gathering 2.0—featured green-clad activists beating drums as well as opposition MPs. Many protesters wore green T-shirts with the words “Stop Lynas,” and some shouted “Destroy Lynas!” Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said his alliance will seek an emergency motion in parliament to urge the government to cancel the project, and pledged that the opposition would scrap the plant if it won elections expected by June. “We don’t want [this project] to sacrifice our culture and the safety of the children,” he told the crowd. The Lynas website was also hacked, with a Malaysian flag and the slogan “Stop Lynas, Save Malaysia” replacing the corporate logo.

The plant has sparked repeated protests over health and environmental risks posed by potential leaks of radioactive waste. Lynas says the plant has state-of-the-art pollution controls, and plans to start operations by June. The refinery will process precious metals mined in Australia for use in the production of mobile phones, flat-screen TVs, hybrid cars, iPods and missile guidance systems. Significantly, it will be the first in decades outside China, which currently supplies 95% of world demand for rare earths. Prices have soared in recent years. The Kuantan plant is expected to break what media reports called “China’s stranglehold” on the global supply of 17 essential rare earths.

Pahang residents have sought a court order to halt the plant. An International Atomic Energy Agency team, which assessed the Lynas project last year, found it lacked both a comprehensive long-term waste management program, and a plan to dismantle the plant once it is no longer operating. Malaysia’s last rare earth refinery, operated by Mitsubishi of Japan in northern Perak state, was closed in 1992 after protests and claims that it caused birth defects and leukaemia among residents. It is one of Asia’s largest radioactive waste cleanup sites. (Jakarta Globe, BBC News, The Guardian, Feb. 26)

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