Lynas Workers at the Lynas plant in Gebeng, Kuantan. If the waste from the plant is safe, why is Australia refusing to accept it? FILE PIC

LYNAS Corporation is an Australian rare earths mining and refining company listed on the Australian Securities Exchange.

Lynas Malaysia Sdn Bhd was set up in 2006 and it built the 100ha Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP) in a low-lying swamp in Gebeng, near the South China Sea, with 500,000 to 700,000 people living within a 30km radius.

It may seem logical for the plant to be close to mines, to minimise logistic challenges. The unrefined ore is shipped to Malaysia because Australia cannot provide highly-skilled manpower, chemical reagents and utilities, such as water supply and natural gas, needed to process rare earth minerals.

Other factors are geographic location, efficient government agencies and legal framework. In addition, Malaysia’s government provided a 12-year tax exemption to Lynas. There could be another reason: cheaper workforce.

Plant operations started in 2012. LAMP is designed to process 65,000 tonnes of rare earth concentrates and will produce 22,000 tonnes of high-purity rare earth element.

To accomplish this, 500 cubic metres per hour of water, 110,000 tonnes of sulphuric acid, 150,000 tonnes of hydrochloric acid and 110,000 tonnes of lime are consumed every year.

Three categories of waste have been generated from the plant: three gypsum-type wastes, waste water and flue gas.

The latter two are purged into the environment, while solid waste include water leached purification (WLP), neutralisation underflow residue and flue gas desulphurisation residues.

It is true that WLP is considered “low-level radioactive material”, but there are 256 Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of WLP stockpiled at temporary storage sites in Gebeng.

The Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Ministry has announced that the solid waste will be removed prior to the expiration of Lynas’ temporary storage licence (TOL) on Sept 2.

If Lynas’ claims of safety are true, then Australia should be willing to accept the waste product.

However, Australian members of parliament have refused any “importation of waste back to Australian soil”, and previously expressed “grave concern” about Malaysia’s initial approval of a licence to Lynas.

We believe it is immoral to put the onus on the Kuantan-Kemaman community “to prove that Lynas (LAMP) is unsafe”, that is, to be lab rats in a natural experiment.

The onus to prove unquestionable safety is on Lynas. We also believe that no one has any responsibility to prove unquestionable danger before LAMP is shut.

No one knows how safe (or how hazardous) the plant, unrefined ore, transport process and waste itself — including volume, temporary storage and permanent disposal— are.

Assertions that elements of LAMP are “unquestionably safe” are false and misleading.

Even if we adopt a higher burden of proof for danger, there is a presence of danger that is non-negligible. Therefore, the “precautionary principle” in public health is paramount in the case of Lynas.

If the waste from LAMP is safe, why is Australia refusing to accept it?

There are lessons from Mitsubishi’s rare earth factory in Bukit Merah in the 1980s and China’s refusal recently to accept the plastic waste of the West, both of which indicate that public health is more important than any short-term and small economic impact. Say nothing about the reduction of fresh water supply for Malaysians, the risk of leakage of temporary storage facilities, the airborne pollution of dust and particles during transport, or the possibility of flooding or man-made accidents.

We believe the terms of the agreement with Lynas must be respected, and the attorney-general and legal practitioners should argue for the government’s position in the matter.

But the overarching and long-term principles are clear: any possible benefit of Lynas is not worth the risk. Malaysia must never be used as a dumping ground.

This letter is signed by academics and civil society activists, and supported by Subang, Pasir Gudang, Tanjong Malim, Merbok, Setiawangsa  Johor Baru, Julau and Ledang members of parliament