PETALING JAYA: Any move to mine for rare earth elements (REE) in Ulu Muda, Kedah, would jeopardise the water security of millions of Malaysians, warns an environmental activist.
The 160,000ha Ulu Muda forest reserve in Kedah serves as a vital water catchment area in the northern region, providing 96% of the raw water in Kedah, 80% in Penang and 70% in Perlis, benefiting some 4.2 million consumers.
“The potential (value) is RM62 billion, but we need to be careful,” pointed out Global Environment Centre (GEC) director Faizal Parish. “If they allow mining in the catchment area, it will destroy the water supply.
“We know there are serious concerns about logging in the area, but logging has no impact compared with mining.”
On Wednesday, Kedah Menteri Besar Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor said the state had reached an agreement with a Kuala Lumpur-based joint venture company to mine for REE, with the state’s reserves of the REE said to be worth up to RM62 billion.
Stating that the presence of REE in the state was common knowledge to geologists for the “past 20 years”, Sanusi said the REE in Kedah was found in Sik, Ulu Muda and Baling – and “was not radioactive”.
Questioning why the REE in the area had never been extracted before, Faizal also wanted the Kedah government to provide more specific details on the exact location of any potential mines.
“We know there are a lot of agricultural activities and forests in Kedah. So, where are they going to mine without impacting the environment?” he asked.
“If they say it’s below the padi fields, are they going to dig that up? What is going to happen to the people in the area?”
Sanusi’s announcement that Kedah would mine REE has drawn parallels to Lynas’ rare-earths processing plant in Gebeng, near Kuantan.
One of Malaysia’s most controversial environmental issues because of the low-level radioactive waste that is produced, there have been various calls for the plant to be closed on health grounds.
Tan Bun Teet, chairman of the Save Malaysia, Stop Lynas! advocacy group, said Kedah would have to spend years conducting impact assessments before setting up a rare earth processing plant in the state.
Suggesting that any rare earth elements would be processed in Lynas’ plant, Tan said the Kedah government should first look into finding out how much REE can be found in the state.
Although REE are found all over the world, they are often in low concentrations, making their mining a costly investment which may not prove to be economically viable.
“It’s not as simple as the menteri besar says,” Tan told FMT. “He’s creating a big pie in the sky. It’s laughable.
“We are quite confident Lynas will not be able to carry on in Gebeng in 2023 (when their licence expires), so what will happen to the existing plant?
“They definitely need to make full use of it. That is why there is a feverish attempt to look for rare earth in Malaysia.”
Greenpeace Malaysia also warned the Kedah government to be wary of mining for rare earth in the state, reminding them that previous incidences of health and environmental pollution in Bukit Merah, Ipoh and Kuantan have taught the country a lesson on possible effects the rare earth industry could have on the community if left unchecked.
Calling for the Kedah government to outline its policy on the rare earths industry and its environmental impact, Greenpeace Malaysia said Kedah should first start with public consultations – which are mandated by the law – with NGOs, environmental and health experts, and the public before carrying out such ventures.
The environmental NGO also urged the Kedah government to consider the long-term impact and the financial cost in having to mitigate any potential damage to the environment as well as on the health of the people in the areas concerned.