May 13, 2011

Fresh protests as focus turns to Lynas’ radioactive dump

The backlash against Lynas' controversial plans to process radioactive rare earths 3000km from its Mount Weld mine has kicked up a notch, with locals planning fresh protests and the Australian media finally cottoning onto the stoush.

Andrew Crook — Former <em>Crikey</em> Senior Journalist

Andrew Crook

Former Crikey Senior Journalist

The Malaysian backlash against Lynas Corporation's controversial plans to process radioactive rare earth residue 3000km from its Mount Weld mine has kicked up a notch, with locals planning fresh protests and the Australian media finally cottoning onto the stoush that has the potential to send the ASX darling's share price into freefall. A new wave of protests against the the Lynas plant by the Democratic Action Party are planned for Sunday in Gebeng, Pahang, where CEO Nick Curtis is forging ahead with the $205 million offshore refinery despite growing community concerns over the radioactivity of by-product thorium. A panel of international experts have been commissioned by the Malaysian government to review the plant, potentially delaying a planned September switch-on date. Rare earths are used in numerous hi-tech applications ranging from smart phones to smart bombs. Local ire has also been stoked this week by a story on Tuesday in Malaysian news portal The Malaysian Insider, reporting the Pahang Bar Association had unearthed the minutes of a 2005 meeting of the Northam Shire outside Perth, which showed the council was vigorously opposed to a local treatment plant at the nearby Avon Industrial Park. Avon is connected to Mount Weld via the Great Eastern Highway. The minutes, available online here, state it "vigorously opposes the siting of a hazardous waste disposal and treatment plant at the Avon Industrial Park (in Meenar) based on the negative perceptions that the location will cause to Grass Valley, the Town of Northam and the Avon region". However, Lynas has ruled out any connection to its operation, noting the minutes don't mention it by name and it had "absolutely no interest" and was "not connected whatsoever" with the proposed development. Instead, it claims locals were simply debating the general suitability of the site for a waste management facility under the WA government's overarching plan for state waste. One of the questioners at the meeting, Peter Byfield, told Crikey this morning that he couldn't recall any specific mention of Lynas, but that the proposal may have been discussed by the council in previous years. The allegation is potentially explosive because Lynas chief Nick Curtis has repeatedly stated the firm had decided on Malaysia for the processing plant -- not because of concerns over nuclear waste disposal in Australia, but because the country offered a port location with bountiful water, electricity and skilled labour. Yesterday, Pahang Bar president Hon Kai Ping disputed that he had drawn a specific connection, "despite the convenience of distance as there is a highway running from Mount Weld, Laverton, to the town of Northam, with no necessity of shipping the ore overseas". But locals have rebelled, incensed at what they say is a lack of consultation and the unwillingness of Australia to accept the waste after the processing is complete. While Lynas says it will dispose of the waste safely, residents remain spooked by nearby plant run by Mitsubishi that shut down two decades ago but is still being cleaned up. Thorium has the potential to cause cancer in large doses. Last month, Crikey wrote the first Australian account of the protests, an angle later picked up by The Australian. The New York Times has also been tracking the protests and yesterday the Australia Network ran an impressive wrap of the debate so far, with a cut-down version airing this morning on ABC News Breakfast. Representatives from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will visit Malaysia at the end of this month to assess the plant, which is scheduled to begin operations in four months time. But if locals have their way, shareholders could be on tenterhooks for a while yet. The Lynas scrip, which has quadrupled in the last year on soaring demand for rare earths and a reduction in Chinese exports, remained steady this morning at $2.10.

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2 thoughts on “Fresh protests as focus turns to Lynas’ radioactive dump

  1. michael r james

    Of course the reason there is a world shortage of rare earths is that China finally reacted to the rampant environmental desecration by many small operations in Inner Mongolia by closing many of them down. That in turn was a big reason why rare earthy production shifted to China because coping with the waste is a big part of the cost of enriching the minerals. In response the previous world’s largest mine operation in California will be reopened. Its owners say that today they can do the processing with a fraction of the water use and better management of the toxic wastes and still make money (and who knows, possibly some kind of assistance by the Feds because the China domination has finally brought the recognition of rare earths as a strategic resource.)
    Lynas are fooling no one as to the real reasons they are setting up in Malaysia.

  2. Flower

    Excellent sleuthing on Andrew Crook’s part. WA’s hazardous waste industry has an ignominious past and one can predict with some certainty, an ignominious future, with a mining industry on rampage.

    In the following letter (1 April 2011) from the Department of Environment and Conservation to Lynas Corporation, an excerpt goes something like this:

    14 May 2003 – letter from DEPWRC – History of Environmental Reports:

    “Removed secondary processing at Meenar (near Northam) and associated transport.” Page 4 & 5 of 21.

    The link to the Northam Shire’s minutes does not work, however, I imagine it is to do with the hazardous waste committee (Core Consultative Committee on Hazardous Waste – CCC) established by former Premier Geoff Gallop and his cabinet to erect hazardous waste sites that do not impact on communities. Alas, after Geoff Gallop retired from politics, Mark McGowan, then Labor’s Environment Minister, sacked the dedicated committee without explanation before they could present their final recommendations to cabinet.

    There is compelling evidence suggesting McGowan was captive to the Chamber of Commerce and Industry including CCI’s clients in the heinous hazardous waste industy that continues running amok with impunity.

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