Last Sunday in the city of Kuantan, on Malaysia’s east coast, a New Zealand-born Sydney-based activist, Natalie Lowrey, was arrested with a group of 15 locals. They had been protesting against a rare earth processing facility owned by an Australian company, Lynas Corporation. The activists accuse the company of producing toxic and radioactive waste at the plant, and having no discernible plan for its safe disposal. According to lawyers acting for Lowrey, the charges against her remain unclear.
Lowrey told The Saturday Paper the protest started out as “your usual peaceful Sunday, community, family event” before things turned nasty. Up to a thousand protesters started out at the Himpunan Hijau (HH), or Green Assembly, a temporary base camp seven kilometres from the Lynas refinery.
“People drove or rode bikes to the refinery in a big convoy,” she says. “The main image coming down the road was amazing – a sea of green shirts, of people walking in front towards it, and then a traffic jam of cars following us. Once everyone got to the police line people stopped, took photos of each other, and sang songs.”
She says there was a high police presence at the protest, including local, district and riot police. “The plan was to camp out for a week at the site, as the community and broader peninsula Malaysia wanted to send a strong message to the company to shut down. People were setting up tarp structures on the side of the road as shelter.
“After two hours, around 4pm on Sunday, two people were met by force by police and beaten by batons and kicked,” Lowrey says. “The chairperson of the HH group, Wong Tack, sat down to meditate to defuse the situation. People sat down to join him peacefully, they were asked to move and didn’t, and soon after were all arrested.”
Lowrey made the decision to remain sitting in protest despite being told by police to move on. She was arrested with nine other people, all sitting in peaceful protest. Lowrey says she “felt it in my heart to sit down with them too”.
Since being arrested, Lowrey has been detained in a concrete cell with 15 other female prisoners. Dressed in purple prison suits, they are allowed nothing inside. They either sleep on the floor or on a concrete bench beneath fluorescent lights under 24-hour camera surveillance. Lowrey says she only keeps track of time by the arrival of her meals.
Rare earth elements is a term used for 17 metals vital for the production of high-tech industrial equipment such as smartphones, wind turbines and hybrid car batteries. China has long held a near monopoly on the production of rare earths, but the Australian company Lynas is hoping to break that stranglehold with its Malaysian plant.
The ore Lynas uses to source its rare earth elements comes from Mount Weld in Western Australia, a site that contains some of the largest and highest-grade deposits known. Mount Weld also contains thorium and uranium, a radioactive contaminant. When you strip out the rare earth elements from the ore through a refining process, thorium and other toxic residuals remain.
Since November 2012, the first shipments of these elements were sent from West Australia to the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP) in Kuantan, in the state of Pahang, for refining.
It is fair to say that the Lynas plant has attracted controversy from the start. It has been suggested that its location in Malaysia is largely a result of the ability to run the plant at lower cost and with less stringent scrutiny and requirements than would be possible in Australia, and as far back as 2008 Kuantan local MP Fuziah Salleh raised concerns.
A spokesman for the company pointed to cost as the main consideration. “Lynas initially obtained all approvals for this project in Australia,” he said. “However, a definitive feasibility study proved it to be uneconomic if located in Australia due to deficiency of power and water, and a lack of a domestic supply of required chemicals.”
The spokesman conceded that the company “could have initially done a better job at communicating to the local community”.
“In the past two years, Lynas has actively engaged with the local community, including hosting more than 2500 visitors via some 60 site tours,” he said.
A number of Malaysian non-government organisations and community groups, such as Concerned Citizens of Kuantan and Save Malaysia Stop Lynas, have conducted protests of up to 10,000 people against the plant – although the Malaysian Court of Appeal and Atomic Energy Licensing Board have come down in favour of Lynas.
Lee Tan, a campaigner and technical adviser for several NGOs in the Asia-Pacific who has just returned from Malaysia, says the protests are considered historic. “This has been touted as the largest ever environmental campaign in Malaysia in terms of getting a lot of people out into the streets,” she says, “and it is well resourced locally. It’s been going for about three years and people are genuinely concerned and angry that such a raw deal has been struck between the Malaysian government and Lynas at the expense of the environment and the people. A 12-year tax break was granted in exchange for pollution and radioactive waste.
“People are really worried about the contamination and the pollution,” Tan says. “They are worried about the long-term implications of having radioactive waste so close to the community. People do not have confidence in the government to manage this project properly.”
Peter Karamoskos, the public representative on the Radiation Health Committee of the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, spoke to The Saturday Paper in a private capacity. He has recently submitted expert affidavits to Malaysian courts demonstrating that Lynas fails to live up to international best practice for radioactive waste disposal.
“Lynas are planning to just store the radioactive materials from their refining activities on-site indefinitely,” Karamoskos says. “You can’t have an activity that gives rise to radioactive waste going on without having a credible plan in place … What can end up happening is that if you have this waste on-site and the company goes bust, then the local community just has to wear it.”
Karamoskos says Lynas is holding the waste in open pools pending the development of a plan for its disposal. “The area in Malaysia is subject to monsoonal rainfalls, and it all depends on things going to plan,” he says. “But you can’t just keep rolling the dice hoping something will materialise down the track … This is radioactive material, so you can’t just shove it in a truck and take it down the street. You have to have a transport and management plan. It requires setting up a mini industry to process this waste – Lynas seem to have no idea that this is what’s required. They just seemed to assume they could dump it somewhere.”
A former Lynas deputy project director in Kuantan, speaking on condition of anonymity, describes the plant’s shortcomings: “The design was unsound, the equipment was substandard, the construction methodology was about the worst I had seen to try and shortcut to meet schedule. The schedule was my main concern on the project and I was very vocal about all of these points with the senior oversight committee.”
The former employee says there is a culture of bullying at Lynas, and that when he tried to make his concerns known he was made redundant. “So you know who won the argument,” he says.
In December last year a 33-year-old engineer, Mohamad Fadzli Mohamad Rafdzi, died at the rare earth facility when he fell into a tailings pond – it was the third death at the plant in two years. The source says he is surprised more haven’t lost their lives at the site.
Lynas has said that the two earlier fatalities at the plant were not Lynas employees, and were not working at the facility at the time. “The death of the person you are referring to,” the spokesman said, “was attributed by the coroner to an acute heart attack and drowning. It had nothing to do with the operations of LAMP.”
According to her lawyers in Malaysia, Lowrey has not been formally charged yet. “She is being investigated by the police right now,” lead counsel Roger Chan says. “We believe she is being investigated under the immigration regulations for breaching the conditions in her visa.”
The other protesters have been released on police bail, Chan says, “but they are being investigated for taking part in the demonstration. We hope that the New Zealand government through its high commission office in Malaysia would assume observer status, and plan a visit to Kuantan and get firsthand information from Natalie. Things would be better organised if they paid her a visit.”
Lowrey says she is not opposed to rare earth mining per se, but is concerned about the operations of the Lynas plant and its impact in Malaysia. “We are just looking towards the future and would like to do things in the most sustainable way, which isn’t the business-as-usual approach Australia takes on mining: dig it, ship it, dump it,” she says. “Australia could become a leader in rare earth if more money was invested in the research into emerging technologies.”
Campaigner Lee Tan says Lowrey’s actions have not gone unnoticed in Malaysia. “Natalie is passionate,” she says. “She is very inspired by the Malaysians who have campaigned against this for so long. They realise she has come all the way from Australia to act in solidarity with them and they are really touched by it.”
Lowrey now waits in indefinite detention*, not having been told when she will be charged or whether she might expect to appear in a Malaysian court for her actions. The Lynas plant continues its operations.
*Nat Lowrey was released from Malaysian jail late on June 27