LIVE BLOG FROM MALAYSIA: Day 4 (Ipoh, Bukit Merah)

Friday 20 June 2014

Ipoh originally famous for Tin mining at the turn of the 1900’s, the town is surrounded by lime stone mountains and is an old Chinese settlement, which has some really gorgeous buildings in the town and smaller townships surround Ipoh.  In the early 1980’s it became famous for something else and thats why we wanted to travel here to talk to the people about a refinery that operated in their town from 1982 to 1994. In 1982 Asian Rare Earth (ARE) a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Chemicals opened a Rare earth refinery in Ipoh.

Madam Lai Kwan

We first met with Madam Lai Kwan who worked at ARE as a brick layer fell pregnant while working at the plant with her 8th child, when Lai Kwan gave birth to her son he was severely disabled  Lai Kwan then spent the next decade of her life fighting ARE to shut down and leave her town. Lai  and her son weren’t the only people affected by ARE operations in the Bukit Merah village.  In 1985 a  group of everyday people including Lai Kwan sued ARE on behalf of themselves and 10,000 other people in the community, they were able to initiate this legal process due to a significant rise in the incidence of leukaemia, infant deaths, congenital disease and lead poisoning in locals and more specifically children since the plant began operation.


20.06.2014 – Madam Lai Kwan sitting out the front of her vegetarian restaurant in Ipoh, holding a newspaper clipping from her trip to Japan with her son Cheah Kok Leong in the early 90’s.

The long fight can be followed here 

The people finally won their battle with ARE and that wasn’t through the courts, it was due to public pressure within Malaysia, Japan and internationally.


20.6.2014 Madam Lai Kwan screaming out in support of shutting down Lynas.


Mr Hew

Mr Hew, was also a plaintiff in the ARE case, he was one of the 106 people detained operation Lalang which took place on October 27th 1987 by the Malaysian police. He lead an extremely successful campaign in the community and now is one of a few people that are allowed access and monitor the ARE waste dump which contains 80,000 x 208 litre drums-worth of thorium. He believes that the waste dump is safer than it was but he still can’t say that it is completely safe for future generations. Mr Hew has been fighting for 30 years against ARE and the Malaysian Government.  The waste could never be returned to Japan due to Internationally laws of exporting waste into Japan.




Third ARE waste dump site

ARE proposed the new dump plan in 2011 and began building it in the hills behind Ipoh, along the same road as the local rubbish tip. The tip isn’t that far from the actually waste dump site. The front entrance has a security officer and access isn’t allowed unless your going to the rubbish tip. We decided to drive back and take another farm rd off to the side, there was a small gate with no signage.  Continued on foot for a few hours trekking through the bush in different directions, as the areas quite hilly. Then found a farm rd and walked along for 2km, we then stumbled upon a Buffalo farm, some little houses and a massive radioactive waste dump site.

waste dump sign

This is one of the pictures at the front gate of the waste dump and the tip.



200m from ARE dump site, it is said the Thorium waste has been mixed with cement and placed in cement block cells. its been under construction since 2012. In 2016 ARE will hand it over to the Malaysian Government to manage.



100m from the dump site, none of the workers onsite are known to be from Ipoh.


A major concern with rare earth ore is it is commonly found with deposits of Thorium, which is a naturally radioactive occurring element, it is more abundant than uranium and has a half life of 4.5 billion years (The estimated age of the sun).

The third ARE waste dump site proposal was put through in 2011 which coincidently is the same time that Lynas was given the green light for its rare earth refinery in Kuantan which is 460km away from Bukit Merah. Until this dump site plan the barrels of thorium were just dumped in fields near the refinery in surrounding areas including Papan which also saw vehement community opposition.

Which for most people they only ever see the benefits of rare earths for the applications they use and never really take it to account the disastrous affects this industry has had and still does have on the people who work in this industry and the communities in where they operate and the environment where the waste by-products end up.

Other carcinogenic chemicals are used in the refining of rare earths to extract the elements from the thorium and to separate the 17 elements from each other for individual use, such as hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide and sulfuric acid. Refining one ton of REE’s creates 75 cubic meters of acidic waste water and about one ton of radioactive residue are produced. These are generally dumped in tailings dam if your lucky

Most Rare earth refining has been in northern China and Malaysia over the past three decades due to the serious environmental, health concerns and companies have gained greatly by laced environmental laws and cheap labour.

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