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THE bauxite cowboys of Kuantan will get their comeuppance soon, given the new protection scheme announced by the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry. No longer will illegal miners outnumber the licensed ones, one of the main reasons why things were getting out of hand and the affected areas around Kuantan were experiencing rapid environmental degradation: water and air pollution and the poisoning of the local population and marine life. The waters of Kuantan port were turning red, not to mention the rivers. It was blamed on poor regulation. But, when operators are unlicensed, it is not about regulation; it is about arrests and convictions. Unfortunately, what fed the problem was the corruption, which allowed for abuse with impunity by those involved. This explains the seeming inaction of the state government, which the menteri besar’s upcoming road show aims to explain.

As announced, the actions to be taken will be determined by three factors. First, the port’s cargo handling capacity. Second, the mine operator’s production ability. And, third, the Federal Government’s issuance of approved permits. These must converge, which amount to control of volume of extraction and should prolong the life of the industry a little. Pollution problems, identified as caused by lorries transporting bauxite, will also be partly solved because less ore will be moved daily. To further reduce the dust escaping into the air, the vehicles will be designed to secure the load. Infringing the law will mean heavy fines, including confiscation of vehicles. And, of course, fundamental to the effectiveness of these measures will be the successful prosecution of corrupt officers and corrupters, which is ongoing, with the number arrested adding up slowly but surely.

But, will the dangerous water pollution problem be addressed? While there is talk of ensuring that every last ounce exported will be taxed and the price set to match that of other producers, there is no mention in the statement by the minister involved of the guidelines for the mining activity itself. The culprits that have caused seepage of the waste water from washing the ore to enter the rivers and poisoning river life are the mines. Scientists claim that the poison has begun entering the food chain. What is being done to ensure that safety measures of licensed mines are set and then closely monitored? In bauxite-producing countries like Australia, this is the primary consideration — to prevent the carcinogenic waste water from entering the water ecosystem.

Of course, commitment to maintain standard operating procedures — once they are established — is paramount. Granted the mines are expected to be exhausted in four short years, but continued vigilance is absolutely necessary. The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission plays a key role in maintaining the level of honesty of public officers. The police, meanwhile, would be instrumental in preventing a renewed mushrooming of illegal mines once the three-month moratorium is lifted. And, because the problem’s resolution involved both the federal and state governments, the cooperation must continue to prevent any possible paralysis due to overlap of jurisdiction, as was the initial enforcement glitch.

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