In November, the first shipment of raw “rare earth” minerals arrived at an $800 million processing plant on Malaysia’s east coast near the home of Tan Bun Teet. The plant, run by Australia’s Lynas Corporation, has since begun refining the rare earth metals, essential components in wind turbines, hybrid cars, smart phones, cruise missiles, and other high-tech products. Once fully operational, the plant would become the world’s largest processing facility of rare earths, breaking China’s near-monopoly on producing the prized elements.
But Tan and others in the region are concerned that the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant, known as LAMP, will be plagued by the severe environmental problems that have been the hallmark of rare earths processing plants in China and, more than two decades ago, in Malaysia itself. The plant lies in an industrial zone atop reclaimed swampland, just 12 miles from Kuantan, a city of 600,000. The chief worry is that the rare earth elements are bound up in mineral deposits with the low-level radioactive element thorium, exposure to which has been linked to an increased risk of developing lung, pancreatic, and other cancers.
“We are not against rare earths processing,” says Tan, a retired schoolteacher who leads a citizens’ group opposed to the plant. “We’re only against the inappropriate choice of site, and the way they’re going to keep the waste.” Tan echoes scientists’ concerns that the plant’s toxic wastewater will leach into groundwater, and that its storage ponds are vulnerable to the monsoons that slam the swampy coastline every autumn.
As global demand has surged in recent years for rare earth elements, fears have grown that China, which accounts for more than 95 percent of rare earths output, will withhold supplies, as it did temporarily two years ago during a dispute with Japan. As a result, across five continents and numerous countries — including the United States, Brazil, Mongolia, and India — rare earth processing projects are being launched or revived. With them comes the potential threats to the environment and human health that have plagued China’s processing sites.
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