Written Submission to the IAEA International Panel:
Review of Lynas at Gebeng, Kuantan
Thursday, 2 June 2011
Consumers’ Association of Penang and Sahabat Alam Malaysia
We are highly concerned because basic procedures such as an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and a Radiological Impact Assessment (RIA) have not been carried out according to even the minimum standards. There are many irregularities and instances where rules were bent; the poorly done Preliminary Environmental Impact Assessment (PEIA) was approved in haste; serious deficiency in the socio-economic analyses and the lack of a CBA; the existence of the dual-track process of the PEIA and the RIA was not made public until serious issues were raised; and the lower than Australian standards used, all point to a serious lack of due diligence.
Admittedly, many activities are supposed to be regulated. However, regulation is one thing, but due diligence, compliance and enforcement is another.
When the most basic procedures and rules are not adhered to, how then can the authorities be trusted to carry out their responsibilities in more complicated and dangerous activities?
This lackadaisical attitude and laissez faire approach magnify our safety, public health and environmental concerns over what would happen when the concentrated lanthanides arrive and operations in the plant begin. Our concerns are real and valid, given the tragic consequences of the Bukit Merah Asian Rare Earth case 20 years ago which till today have not been resolved by the very same authorities that are handling the Lynas plant.
Further fuelling our fears is the fact that the Gebeng site, being a former peat swamp, is susceptible to subsidence, and the vague or lack of a proper radioactive wastes management (permanent storage and disposal) plan.
The following are some of our major concerns regarding the RIA and EIA:
PART 1.The Radiological Impact Assessment (RIA)
The RIA is an enigma in itself and offers concrete proof of the lack of due diligence in the Lynas project.
The RIA which was first made available to the public for viewing on 30 May 2011 was actually done in June 2010. However, this RIA report made references to an earlier version which was submitted and approved in 2008. Why was the earlier version in need of revisions, and if it was not good enough for the AELB then, why was it approved in 2008 before the revised version was produced in mid-2010?
Moreover, the revised RIA was done in June 2010 but the PEIA was approved much earlier in February 2008. This casts doubts on the whole approval procedure and due diligence process.
1.1. RIA scope does not cover decommissioning and final wastes disposal, and does not extend beyond a 10-year period
A very crucial point is that the RIA does not cover future decommissioning and disposal of the plant. Only an AELB Guideline (LEM/TEK/38) was referred to for decommissioning and cessation of operations. Is this AELB Guideline binding and does it contain all the necessary checks and balances to ensure that the decommissioning and cessation would not be leaving a toxic legacy as the Bukit Merah ARE plant did 20 years ago? What will happen to all those accumulated wastes and the contaminated factory? How does one get rid of these radioactive and toxic wastes? Who is liable and who pays?
Further on the issue of radiological assessment, the RIA (page 49) states that:
‘… in view of that the capacity onsite for the storage of residue is only 10 years, the assessment will therefore be made for …. within this period. Assessments over a longer period beyond 10 years will not be looked at in this study because the residue streams are going to be in the RSF [Residual Storage Facility] only as an interim measure as the Company has a plan to consider other alternatives for final disposal of the residues. …..’
The RSF is only an interim measure? What is the company’s alternative plan for the final disposal of the residues then?
The much-touted specially-designed RSF is apparently only an interim measure. In effect, the Lynas plant has no known credible waste management plan (refer to Part 2 on the PEIA below on the waste management plan) during the 10 years of estimated storage capacity, AND has no final permanent disposal and decommissioning plans.
Please note that Lynas is expected to be in operation for at least 20 years (page 37, RIA). For the first 10 years, the Lynas plant is estimated to produce some 824,400 cubic metres of radioactive wastes residues.
Based on the points mentioned above, the Lynas project should not be approved.
1.2. Other RIA concerns
On page 30 of the RIA: the MNA study reveals that ‘… the concentration of thorium-232 ….. in the Malaysian soils varies around … (0.09 +- 0.05 Bq/g) ….’.
COMMENTS: The accumulative TENORM in terms of lanthanide concentrates and the wastes will certainly increase the background level in Gebeng and the surrounding areas considering that the reported radiation value for some of the wastes e.g. WLP (Water Leach Purification) is 62 Bq/g. Compared to the original soil level of barely 0.09 Bq/g, the massive amount of accumulated WLP wastes would be a significant multi-fold increase.
Page 32 of the RIA: ‘As described in Section 6.3, two of the TENORM residue are expected to contain enhanced concentration of TENORM and are potential to cause some impact to the people involved’.
Page 35 of the RIA: The AELB allowable dose limit is 1mSv/year for the public and non-radiation workers, while the radiation workers’ limit is up to 50 mSv/year. However, the new IAEA recommended limit is more stringent at 20 mSv/year for the radiation workers. And the collective dose to the populations (critical groups) should not exceed 1 mSv/year.
A dose constraint for pollution or contaminated sites, tailings etc is set by the AELB at 0.3 mSv/year (see Section 6.2).
Page 38 of the RIA: COMMENT: The data used for the background radiation values in the soil is not congruent with the data presented in the earlier page 30. How can the RIA conclude that the radiation values of the wastes be similar or less than the soil background level?
Pages 40-47 of the RIA: The first group of workers potentially affected are the Kuantan port workers and the truck drivers from external radiation, as well as internal radiation via inhalation of the lanthanide dust during loading and unloading. Similarly, the workers at the plant itself will be affected, especially the workers at the WLP wastes area. (The AELB has set a limit of 1 Bq/g for radium-226 and 1 Bq/g for radium-228 (the bone-seeking radiological substances) prior to discharge via a dedicated pipeline into Sg. Balok.)
Page 63 of the RIA: The critical group of onsite workers at the WLP area is expected to receive 4.34 mSv/year. The public may be affected via external dusts as well as by internal radiation via ingestion of water and fish.
To prevent leaching of radionuclides, the storage cells dual liner system consisting of a 1 mm plastic liner and the 1-foot clay layer is grossly inadequate for possible scenarios of punctured plastic liner and cracked clay layer due to subsidence (due to the peat soil). Moreover, the integrity of the plastic liner is expected to degrade with time.
See also Appendix 2 on what seems to be Lynas contravening Sections 7 and 9 of the Malaysian Environmental Quality (Control of Pollution from Solid Waste Transfer Station and Landfill) Regulations, 2009 on groundwater protection and landfills.
Page 66 of the RIA: ‘For the solid residues generated, suitable alternatives are being considered by the Company as an alternative approach to long-term storage of the residue. …. in a study prepared by the Company in conjunction with Worley Parsons Services Pty Ltd…..’. The FGD, WLP and NUF will be re-used for various industries ranging from construction to fertilisers.
COMMENT: What is the use of the specially-designed RSF, the plastic lining and clay layer, etc when eventually the radioactive wastes will be spread out as fertilisers and construction materials? Have these been assessed?
Pages 67-68 of the RIA: COMMENT: As of June 2010 (when the revised RIA was produced), there is still no Emergency Plan, as well as no decommissioning concept. The RIA only states that the Emergency Plan and decommissioning concept will be done. When will these be carried out? Before or after operation begins? Who will monitor and evaluate these plans? Who will pay for these monitoring, evaluations and verifications?
Page 71 of the RIA: The RIA concluded that the operation of the plant would not cause undue radiological risks to workers and the public.
COMMENT: How naive is this conclusion when the RIA’s scope does not cover, inter alia, more than a 10-year period, does not cover long-term wastes storage and disposal problems, and does not cover the decontamination & decommissioning plans?
PART 2: The Preliminary Environmental Impact Assessment (PEIA)
The points discussed below are taken only from the PEIA.
2.1. THE GEBENG SITE:
According to the PEIA, the Gebeng industrial area was formerly part of the Paya Tanah Merah peat swamp forest, with Sg. Balok and Sg. Tunggak draining the area. Sg. Balok flows into the sea 3 km away. The Gebeng industrial area was cleared and filled a few years ago, but is still surrounded by peat swamp vegetation. Its soil is mainly alluvial peat. The site is located in a low-lying area within the Sg. Balok catchment area.
The groundwater level is only 0.95 – 3.5 m bgs (below ground surface). Thus, very shallow before hitting groundwater. This does not augur well in case of pollution, spills, leaks etc. In fact, the PEIA states that there are potential impacts on the groundwater from operational phase. The areas of concern are listed in the PEIA, which include from the lanthanide concentrate storage shed, from the RSF, from the special segregated WLP Retention Pond and others.
The tidal range in Kuantan is between 2 m – 3.5 m with a difference of 1.5 m between high and low tides. The typical tidal levels at the mouth of Sg. Balok are expected to range from 0.5 m to 2.5 m (see PEIA, Table 5.2.5). Sg. Balok is likely to be tidal up to 10 km upstream. Thus, any wastes can potentially be carried upstream to the tidal limit. However, the zone of impact in the PEIA is set only at a 5 km radius.
Gebeng experiences monsoons with high precipitation with an average annual rainfall of 2,958 mm. But the highest rainfall in 1967 was 4,268 mm. The heavy rain may cause an overflow of the retention ponds and other stored wastes into groundwater and/or into river. The strong coastal or monsoon winds may blow particles of lanthanide concentrates and the wastes, where nearby local populations may be exposed to radioactivity via inhalation and ingestion. The high rainfall may result in runoffs from the storage shed, from the RSF, from the segregated WLP ponds, etc into the drain, into the groundwater, into Sg. Balok and eventually into the sea.
2.2. RADIOACTIVE WASTES MANAGEMENT:
What is the Lynas radioactive wastes management plan?
Firstly, the lanthanides are of unclear radiation specific activity after the concentration process in Australia, and it is unclear if the Malawi rare earths with higher radiation specific activity will be used.
Secondly, the amount of lanthanide concentrates (dry weight) to be imported to Kuantan annually is very confusing, ranging from 65,000 tonnes to double that amount. In the Bahasa Malaysia Ringkasan Eksekutif (PEIA, page RE-i), it is stated 121,036 tan bijih lantanida setahun (berat kering), but in the English Introduction (PEIA, page 1-1), it is stated up to 65,000 tonnes per annum (dry weight). This raises questions about the actual amount that will be processed in Gebeng and the actual amount of radioactive wastes that will have to be managed.
How can planning for the Environmental Management Plan (EMP), Emergency Response Plan (ERP) , or wastes (radioactive, scheduled, and municipal wastes) management, storage or disposal be carried out if the lanthanide concentrates’ radioactive properties and amount are not known?
Thirdly, according to the PEIA, six of the eight types of wastes generated are labelled radioactive. Some of the wastes that will be generated include:
• The WLP (Water Leach Purification) residue from the Cracking and Separation plant (32,000 tonnes per year at 62 Bq/g)
• The FGD (Flue gas desulphurisation) residue from the waste scrubber system (27,000 tonnes per year at 0.47 Bq/g)
• The NUF (Neutralisation Underflow) residue from the HDS treatment system (85,300 tonnes per year at 0.25 Bq/g).
In the same Chapter 5 of the PEIA, it is stated that all these residue streams and filter cakes will be stored onsite at the RSF (Residual Storage Facility) until a permanent disposal option is selected by Lynas in conjunction with the AELB. What is the permanent disposal option meant here?
Fourthly, according to the PEIA, Lynas has commissioned a conceptual engineering design of the RSF. One conceptual design scenario has been presented to the AELB and is currently under evaluation. Has this conceptual design been tested in the real world? What were the AELB’s evaluation results?
Key features of the RSF design reportedly include low permeability materials to ensure the base of the RSF is at least 1 m above groundwater level, and all residue storage cells will be lined with 300 mm (ca. 30 cm or 1 ft) clay layer and overlain by a 1 mm thick high density polyethylene (HDPE) liner.
In our opinion, given the groundwater level is only 0.95 – 3.5 m bgs, this makes the base of the RSF too close to the groundwater. Further, the 1 ft clay layer is not adequate. Please be reminded that this was a peat swamp area where there could be ground subsidence and thus cracks or unevenness in the clay layer. Moreover, the 1 mm thick HDPE liner is too thin and prone to puncture, holes or damage due to sharp stones or objects during the installation process and will eventually degrade.
Since the vertical storage space is extremely limited given the groundwater level and the proposed 1 ft of clay liner, would the horizontal storage space be adequate for the accumulative wastes storage permanently?
If this much-touted specially-designed RSF is literally and figuratively full of holes, then the potential for radioactive contamination on land and into the water system is higher than expected.
And if the onsite storage space is inadequate for permanent disposal, what is to be done with these radioactive wastes?
Fifthly, there is a scandalous plan as stated in Chapter 5 of the PEIA (see also Table 5.5.3):
‘As part of mitigation measures of radioactive wastes, in addition to constructing the Lynas-designed RSF, Lynas is exploring the potential beneficial uses of each of the residue streams….. . The reuse will significantly reduce the quantity of residue for on-site storage and the allocated footprint for RSF within the site.’
Lynas plans to go into R&D projects with the University of Pahang. The PEIA mentioned that Lynas plans to use the WLP residues as fertilisers (contains high levels of phosphorous and magnesium) and raw materials for cement manufacture; the FGD residue as plasterboard and raw material for cement manufacturers; and the NUF residue as fertilisers (high in magnesium, aluminium and calcium sulphate) and as raw materials for cement manufacturers.
Newspapers reported that Lynas wastes will be used for road construction.
Ironically, and regrettably, these are the same radioactive residues which are to be stored in the specially designed RSF (see Table 5.5.2).
What is the point of having separate specially-lined retention ponds and special RSFs, recycling and stating no offsite discharge for WLP when WLP will be released outside as fertilisers and cement? The WLP residue is the most radioactive, 32,000 tonnes per year at 62 Bq/g.
The same goes for the specially-lined retention ponds and waste treatment systems of HDS (High Density Sludge) and WWTP (Waste Water Treatment Facility) and special RSFs when FGD and NUF will be released as fertilisers, plaster boards or cement?
The above scandalous plan is reminiscent of what happened at the Bukit Merah rare earth plant where the wastes were distributed and spread as fertilisers and construction materials, with tragic consequences for the local people.
Sixthly, as stated in the PEIA, in ‘emergency’ situations such as when there is no electricity and the pumps are not functioning, runoffs, overflows, leaks, effluents discharge etc that eventually go into the water systems are NOT required to adhere to the usual water quality standards or secure procedures. In the PEIA, a few emergency situations are anticipated. Who is to know if the radioactive and scheduled wastes are released during these ‘emergency’ situations? What are the consequences?
2.3. WASTEWATER MANAGEMENT:
Water usage during the operation of the Lynas plant is massive (300-550 m3/hour). Similarly effluent discharge is estimated in the PEIA as at 300-550 m3/hour.
Lynas reportedly will install a 2-stage waste water treatment system i.e.,
• High Density Sludge Neutralisation (to neutralise acids and remove metals) and
• Industrial Effluent Treatment System (an activated sludge bio-treatment to treat process water to reduce BOD & COD).
Note that this dual system does not reduce radioactive materials in the water. Where does the contaminated water go? Are the waste water treatment systems and storage ponds sufficient? What happens during monsoon? Runoffs, etc? Similar to the sections above, our concerns remain.
2.4. DUBIOUS PEIA:
The project as presented in the PEIA appears highly dubious. Criticisms on its validity have been previously discussed elsewhere. Please refer to Appendix 1 and Appendix 2.
In addition, why is the Zone of Impact considered for its so-called Quantitative Risk Assessment merely a 5 km radius from the factory site (see Chapter 4 of the PEIA)? What about the point of arrival in Malaysian waters, then into Kuantan port, and via the inhabited areas of Balok and other potentially polluted areas via river, underground water, the coastal area and further? On what scientific basis is this 5-km radius based? In Chapter 4, the tidal range in Kuantan is stated as between 2 m – 3.5 m and that Sg. Balok is likely to be tidal up to 10 km upstream. Hence the effect of pollution is going to be more than the 5 km radius of the Zone of Impact used.
Note that in Chapter 5 of the PEIA, it was illogically stated that ‘For the purposes of water quality assessments, typical low flows in the river are more important than the peak or flood flows. Thus, information on flood flows was not critical for the purposes of this study.’
This is highly flawed and irresponsible because during monsoons and high rainfall events, the storm overflows and runoffs from the risky WLP and RSF are likely to occur. Where are the coastal dynamic and pollution dispersion assessments?
There are numerous other flaws regarding the PEIA. Please refer to other points in this Part 2, as well as Appendices 1 & 2.
2.5. ENVIRONMENTAL STANDARDS & LAW
An assessment done by ELAW (see Appendix 2) has demonstrated that Lynas failed to provide several crucial pieces of information in the PEIA and potentially contravenes several laws in Malaysia and Australia.
For example, in the PEIA, Lynas failed to provide information to the Malaysian authorities on the characteristics of the leachates, which under Western Australian Law (Landfill Waste Classification and Waste Definitions, 1996), Lynas would be required to provide.
Also missing is the most important environmental protection tool – a leachate collection system which would also be a requirement by the Western Australia DoE. A landfill without a leachate treatment system seems to directly contravene Malaysian law, specifically Section 9 of the Malaysian Environmental Quality (Control of Pollution from Solid Waste Transfer Station and Landfill) Regulations, 2009. See Appendix 2 for details.
The Lynas PEIA also reveals that the project would also fail to fulfil the Western Australian DoE requirements of meeting the criteria for a Class III landfill e.g. a minimum thickness of the attenuation zone of 2 m (Lynas Gebeng only has a 1 m attenuation zone above groundwater level). Thus, Lynas seems to contravene Section 7 of the Malaysian Environmental Quality (Control of Pollution from Solid Waste Transfer Station and Landfill) Regulations, 2009 regarding prevention of groundwater pollution. See Appendix 2 for details.
Lynas should adhere to the Australian standards as well as adhere to Malaysia’s environmental laws.
In addition, Australia should adhere to the internationally agreed principles of the Rio Declaration, inter alia:
Principle 2 – States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies, and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.
Principle 14 – States should effectively cooperate to discourage or prevent the relocation and transfer to other States of any activities and substances that cause severe environmental degradation or are found to be harmful to human health.
Principle 15 – In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.
Since Lynas is an Australian-registered company, Australia is obliged to ensure that the internationally agreed principles of the Rio Declaration are adhered to.
The authorities have shown that they are unable to deal with rare earths processing, as shown by the previous case 20 years ago where problems are still unresolved and radioactive wastes had to be dug up and removed to a hilly area for storage.
The authorities have shown yet again that they are incapable of adhering to existing minimum procedures and rules regarding the PEIA and the RIA for the Lynas project. Their lack of expertise renders them unqualified to safely monitor the Lynas operation and the wastes storage, disposal and decommissioning process in the future, let alone the anticipated emergencies as stated in the PEIA.
Lynas has also been shown to be incompetent. It has been revealed that the Lynas PEIA would seriously fall short of the requirements by the Dept of Environment of Western Australia. There are also several Malaysian laws that seem to have been contravened. The permanent radioactive wastes disposal and management are still too vague. Additionally, there is still no Emergency Plan, as well as no cessation and decontamination & decommissioning plans.
Public safety issues as well as environmental issues are not adequately addressed. The Lynas plant in Gebeng should not be allowed to operate.
SM Mohamed Idris
President of Consumers Association of Penang and Sahabat Alam Malaysia
Appendix 1 – CAP & SAM Press Statement on the EIA hasty approval, dated 23 May 2011. Available here.
Appendix 2 – ELAW’s Assessment of the PEIA and the QRA
Appendix 3 – CAP & SAM publications and articles on the Bukit Merah Asian Rare Earth case