Eight men — a welder, a shoemaker, a general worker, a pensioner, a barber, a tractor driver, a crane-operator and a cancer victim who was to die shortly — sued Asian Rare Earth in 1985 on behalf of themselves and 10,000 other residents of Bukit Merah and the environs in Perak. They wanted to shut down this rare earth plant in their village near Ipoh because its radioactive waste was endangering their lives.
When the Mitsubishi joint venture plant opened over 1982, the villagers soon began complaining of the factory’s stinging smoke and bad smell which made them choke and cry. Worse was to come. Their health began failing, indicated not only by frequent bouts of coughs and colds, but a sharp rise in the incidence of leukaemia, infant deaths, congenital disease and lead poisoning.
For the first time in Malaysian legal history, an entire community has risen to act over an environmental issue, to protect their health and environment from radioactive pollution.
Below is the chronology of what happened when a radioactive rare earth plant was set up in Bukit Merah. Today, about 30 years later, the Government is allowing a new rare earth plant to be set up by Lynas in Gebeng, Kuantan. This new project should be scrapped if the Malaysian Government puts the health of Malaysians before profits.
November: The Asian Rare Earth Sdn Bhd (ARE) is incorporated to extract yttrium (a rare earth) from monazite. The major shareholders are the following: Mitsubishi Chemical Industries Ltd (35%), Beh Minerals (35%), Lembaga Urusan dan Tabung Haji or the state-owned Pilgrims’ Management Fund Board (20%) and other bumiputra businessmen (10%). ARE seeks the advice of the Tun Ismail Research Centre (Puspati) of the Science, Technology and Environment Ministry about radioactive waste produced by processing monazite. It is decided that the waste, the property of the Perak State Government, will be kept in view of its potential as a source of nuclear energy.
June : Residents of Parit in Perak learn that a nine-acre site six kilometres away has been chosen by the government as a storage dump for ARE’s radioactive waste.
30 June : Following strong protest by the residents’ committee and other political and social organisations, the plan is scrapped by the government which begins to look for another site to locate the dump.
11 July : ARE factory begins operations at 7.2 km Jalan Lahat in Bukit Merah New Village.
November : Residents of Papan (about 16 kilometres from Ipoh) find out that ARE is building trenches of a waste dump near their town to store radioactive waste. The site had been picked by the government.
24 May : About 6,700 residents of Papan and nearby towns sign a protest letter and send it to the Prime Minister, Perak Menteri Besar, the Minister of Health, the Minister of Science, Technology and Environment.
31 May : About 200 residents from Papan protest against the proposed waste dump. They block the road leading to the site.
5 June : The Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad says the government has taken every precaution to ensure safety and that construction of the radioactive dump in Papan will go ahead.
18 June : About 300 Papan residents demonstrate for the second time against the proposed location of the dump.
28 June : The Minister of Science, Technology and Environment, Datuk Amar Stephen Yong, states that the Papan dump is safe because it is being built according to stringent standards. He challenges critics to prove that the dump will be hazardous to health and the environment. In the meanwhile, ARE continues operating, dumping the thorium waste into an open field and pond next to the factory.
1 July : About 3,000 people, including women and children, hold a peaceful demonstration to protest against the Papan dump.
4 July : About 2,000 people continue with the demonstration despite an order from the Perak Chief Police Officer to call it off.
18 July : A Bukit Merah Action Committee is formed, comprising residents from Bukit Merah, Lahat, Menglembu and Taman Badri Shah to support the Papan residents. Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) sends a memorandum to the Prime Minister stating that high levels of radiation exist at the open field and pond next to the ARE factory in Bukit Merah. One reading taken by SAM officials in a recent visit was 43,800 millirems/year, 88 times higher than the maximum level permitted by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) for the public.
29 August : Michael O’Riordan from the British National Radiological Protection Board is invited by the government to inspect the dump site in Papan.
19 September : A three-man team from the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) visit the Papan site at the invitation of the Malaysian government. They declare the trenches there as unsafe.
5 October : A British physicist and safety analyst, Dr William Cannell, is invited by the Papan residents to visit the dump. He finds its engineering work to be “extremely shoddy”.
21 October : An American expert, formerly of the US National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionising Radiation (BEIR), Dr Edward Radford, is invited by the Papan people to review the dump. He finds the site is unsuitable and that the trenches have thin or cracked walls.
7 November : A Japanese industrial waste expert, Dr Jun Ui, is invited by the Papan people to inspect the waste dump. He finds it unsuitable foil storing hazardous waste.
28 November : The Cabinet discusses reports submitted by the two regulatory bodies. The report by the British National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) said that residents would be safe only if certain conditions were observed by the Perak Government and ARE. The second report by IAEA said the trenches did not meet required specifications.
9 December : More than 1,500 residents in Papan stage a one-day hunger strike to protest against the government’s decision to go ahead with the plan to locate the dump in Papan. Bukit Merah residents bring in a Japanese radiation and genetics expert, Professor Sadao Ichikawa, to measure radiation levels at the open field and pond next to the ARE factory. He finds the levels there dangerously high, the highest at 800 times above the permissible level.
12 December : Acting Prime Minister Datuk Musa Hitam declares a personal interest in the Papan affair. He pays a visit to the dump.
11 January : After a Cabinet meeting chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Musa Hitam, the government decides to relocate the proposed dump site to Mukim Belanja in the Kledang Range about five kilometers from Papan and three kilometres from Menglembu.
1 February : Eight residents on behalf of themselves and the Bukit Merah residents file an application in the Ipoh High Court to stop ARE from producing, storing and keeping radioactive waste in the vicinity of the village. The Atomic Energy Licensing Act of 1984 is en-forced. It ensures that operators of nuclear installations (including the government) are held liable for nuclear damage. A five-member Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB) is formed under the Act, with representatives from Puspati, the Ministry of Health and the Science, Technology and Environment Ministry.
14 October : Justice Anuar bin Datuk Zainal Abidin at the Ipoh High Court grants an injunction to the Bukit Merah residents to stop ARE from producing and storing radioactive waste until adequate safety measures are taken. More than 1,500 residents of Bukit Merah turn up at court to hear the decision.
22 September : ARE claims it has spent over RM2 million to upgrade safety measures (as required by the court injunction) following IAEA standards. It invites an American atomic energy expert, Dr E. E. Fowler (formerly with the IAEA) to visit the factory. Dr Fowler states that radiation levels near ARE facilities have met ICRP standard and that the factory is safe for operation.
5 October : About 3,000 residents in and around Bukit Merah stage a demonstration against ARE’s plan to keep radioactive waste in its permanent dump in the Kledang Range.
28 October : Professor Sadao Ichikawa on his second trip to Bukit Merah reveals that radiation around the ARE factory is still above the acceptable level. He is denied entry into the factory.
16 November : A team from AELB checks out a few illegal thorium waste dump sites in Bukit Merah. They are assisted by ARE ex-contractor, Ng Toong Foo, who had carried out the dumping. Readings at one dump are between 0.05-0.10 millirems/hour (that is, 438-876 millirems/year) above the maximum safety level of 0.057 millirems/hour set by the ICRP.
26 November : Representatives from seven areas (Bukit Merah, Lahat, Taman Badri Shah, Menglembu, Papan, Falim and Guntong) form the Perak Anti-radioactive Committee (PARC).
8 December : Minister Kasitah Gadam of the Prime Minister’s Department says that radiation levels at two illegal dumps in Bukit Merah checked by AELB are safe. He says that although the AELB found that the levels exceeded the normal radiation levels this does not pose a danger as such dumps are few in number.
6 February : Disregarding the High Court injunction to ARE to stop operations, the Malaysian AELB grants a licence to ARE to resume operations.
10 April : Fourteen foreign experts invited by PARC to Bukit Merah — founder-director of the International Institute for Public Concern in Canada, Dr Rosalie Bertell; Secretary of the Centre for Industrial Safety and Environmental Concern in India, V.T. Pathmanabhan; President of the Health and Energy Institute in the United States, Kathleen Tucker among others — are denied entry into ARE. At a forum held in Bukit Merah, these experts concur that ARE presents severe health hazards.
12 April : About 10,000 people march through Bukit Merah in protest against the resumption of operations by ARE.
24 May : About 300 people are dispersed by Federal Reserve Unit personnel near ARE. Over 20, including three women, are injured in two clashes that day. About 60 people are rounded up by police. All but six are released later after questioning. The six youths are freed a week later since the police do not press charges. ARE construction work for a road to the proposed permanent dump site in the Kledang Range is halted by residents.
23 July : A Canadian doctor, Bernie Lau, is engaged by PARC to set up radon gas detectors outside ARE. He finds significant amounts of radon gas escaping from the plant. Earlier, Science, Technology and Environment Minister Datuk Arnar Stephen Yong had said the government was satisfied with the environmental impact assessment report on the proposed permanent dump. The assessment had been carried out by ARE together with the Ministry’s officials.
7 September : The hearing of the suit filed by the eight Bukit Merah residents against ARE begins before Justice Peh Swee Chin in the Ipoh High Court. To highlight their plight, supporters of PARC walk for about eight kilometres from Bukit Merah to Ipoh. Police break up their march near Menglembu. Nine people are arrested but later freed on bail. About 1,000 show up in court to give their support.
11 September : Residents march from Bukit Merah to Ipoh High Court for the last day of hearing. Their number in the court grounds swells to 3,000.
18 September : Bukit Merah residents file contempt proceedings against ARE for breaking the injunction granted to them by the Ipoh High Court in 1985.
27 October : Over a hundred people are detained under the Internal Security Act. Among them are the following: PARC chairman Hew Yoon Tat, PARC vice-chairman Hiew Yew Lan, then PARC secretary Lee Koon Bun, committee member Phang Kooi Yau and Consumers’ Association of Penang’s (CAP) legal centre lawyer representing the Bukit Merah plaintiffs, Meenakshi Raman. They are freed after two months.
November : ARE starts building the permanent waste dump in the Kledang Range.
25 January : The trial resumes.
13 February : The trial comes to a close after 65 days of hearing stretched over 32 months.
11 July : The people of Bukit Merah win their suit against ARE. The factory is ordered by the Ipoh High Court to shut down within 14 days. ARE announces that it will appeal to the Supreme Court.
23 July : ARE files an appeal at the Supreme Court against the Ipoh High Court order to cease operations. PARC chairman Hew Yoon Tat and Lau Fong Fatt, one of the plaintiffs in the suit against ARE, meet top management personnel of Mitsubishi Chemical in Japan. They are told that ARE filed the appeal without the corporation’s consent.
24 July : Following an ex parte application by ARE, the Lord President of the Supreme Court suspends (until further order) the High Court order to ARE to stop operations.
3 August : Over 2,000 people from Bukit Merah turn up at the Supreme Court to hear the appeal by ARE against the Ipoh High Court order suspending operations at ARE. However, the Supreme Court judges postpone the hearing to 5 August because of “pressure exerted by people picketing” outside the courtroom.
5 August : The Supreme Court allows an application by ARE to suspend the High Court order requiring ARE to stop operations pending an appeal by the company. According to the judges, the closure would bring hardship to the company and its 183 workers.
15 March : The scheduled hearing of the appeal filed by ARE at the Supreme Court is postponed to 7 June.23 December 1993
23 December 1993: The Supreme Court overturned the High Court decision on 2 grounds. The Court was of the opinion that ARE’s experts were more believable in terms of the results of the tests conducted by them showing that radiation was within permissible levels. Secondly, the Supreme Court said that the residents should have gone back to the AELB to ask that it revoke ARE’s licence, because AELB has the power to do so under the Atomic Energy Licensing Act. The Court said: “..it is up to the residents to convince the licensing authority that the operation of the factory is not in the public interest because of the danger of radiation to their health”.
The Atomic Energy Licensing Act, however, does not have any provision for appeals by affected communities or the public for any appeals for the revocation of a licence granted to a company by the AELB.
Despite the success of ARE in their appeal, the company later stopped operations and began cleaning up, due to public pressure both nationally and internationally.
19 January 1994: ARE announced the closure of its Bukit Merah plant.
6 November 2002 : The Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB) wrote to CAP and said that the decommissioning and decontamination of the ARE plant had not begun. It will only happen when the Perak State Government and ARE finalise an agreement.
A decommissioning and decontamination exercise started in 2003 and 2005.
13 June 2010 : Former premier Dr. Mahathir Mohamad disagreed with the proposal for Malaysia to build nuclear power plants and reported that “a small amount” of nuclear waste was buried in Perak.
Mahathir said, “In Malaysia, we do have nuclear waste which perhaps the public is not aware of. We had to bury the amang (tin tailings) in Perak, deep in the ground. But the place is still not safe. Almost one square mile of that area is dangerous.”
Following his remarks, The Star has discovered that 80,000 200-litre drums containing radioactive waste are currently being kept at the dump located in the Kledang Range behind Papan town. The site is about 3km from Bukit Merah and Papan and about 15km from Ipoh. And the waste is thorium hydroxide, not amang.
In fact, it is only January this year that work finally began on the building of a proper underground storage facility called an engineered cell (EC).
The ongoing cleanup of the 30-year-old problem is estimated to cost a massive RM300 million.
March 2011 : The New York Times reported that as many as 2,500 workers are rushing to complete a US$230 million plant in Gebeng, near Kuantan, that will refine slightly radioactive ore from Australia.