Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Kuantan's Martian Landscape

Note: For those who don't know Malay, "Marikh" is Mars in English. Image from Twitter
Kuantan has transformed itself into a Martian landscape. All because it is a hot spot for bauxite mining.
After iron, aluminium is the second-most used metal in the world. It is a billion dollar industry that has 600 Felda Kuantan settlers in an entranced state of euphoric excitement because they had discovered there was rich bauxite deposits buried in their lands. And when mining companies began approaching them with offers of up to RM1.8 million each, they all thought they had finally hit the jackpot.
That is how the mining frenzy took off in a big way in Kuantan, Pahang.
Besides, when Indonesia (the world’s third largest supplier of bauxite) banned exports in January 2013, Malaysia quickly stepped in to fill that gap.
According to data from the Minerals and Geoscience Department, we produced just 2,040 tons in 2004; after which, it jumped to 208,770 tons in 2013; and then it pole vaulted to 962,799 metric tons in 2014! To really get a gist of it, check out this graph:

Image credit: http://cilisos.my/why-is-kuantan-turning-all-red-like-mars/

But as loads of money are being made from bauxite exports, there is a heavy price to pay.
As bauxite mining becomes rampant, we hear complaints about “banjir lumpur” (“mudslides” in English) every time it rained – because of soil erosion – and not only that, but the rivers turned red and even the sea near Kuantan Port changed color.
Near Kuantan Port. Pic on Facebook/Fuziah Salleh
The cries of protest grew louder and more strident. New Straits Times went into investigation mode. Samples of water from Sungai Pengorak and Pantai Pengorak were collected and sent to ES Techventure (a KL-based environmental consulting company) for an independent lab test.
From the findings, Prof. Dr. Che Abd Rahim Mohd, Geochemistry & Marine Radiochemistry expert from University Kebangsaan Malaysia confirmed the water was contaminated with heavy metals, and more shockingly he also detected early stages of radiation.
And why not? Bauxite has naturally-occurring uranium and thorium as well as trace quantities of metals such as arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, lead, manganese, mercury and nickel. Most of these trace elements remain with the residue after extraction of the alumina.
This means that bauxite residue management is critical. The ‘waste’ should be properly contained in special facilities known as Bauxite Residue Disposal Areas (BRDA) or they may end up in Residue Storage Areas (RSA) – in any case, companies are required to ensure that in particular, BRDAs comply with the respective environmental standards.
The last thing anybody wants is to run the risk of leakage to groundwater.
NST delved deeper and did more tests on fish samples from the Gebeng coastal area. They found heavy contamination of toxic chemicals and heavy metals. And more disturbing was the high reading on the level of arsenic. The Food Regulation 1985 states that the permissible level in fish is 1mg/kg but the NST samples showed an average of 101.5mg/kg!

Environmental health expert Prof. Dr. Jamal Hisham Hashim explained that this situation is serious because it can cause: cancer, respiratory failure, birth defects, asthma and chronic bronchitis, heart disorders and allergic reactions.
Therefore, Kuantan folks have every reason to be alarmed.
The problem with bauxite mining is two-fold. Firstly, the illegal operators and secondly, miners who don’t follow proper regulations. Methinks, there is an invisible hand. Greed is at work and bauxite poisoning is waiting to strike. 
Kuantan is very badly polluted. We should demand decisive action and yet, until today, that is not happening.
If the authorities will not act, then perhaps it is timely to host Visit Kuantan this year. And they can even organize the Fear Challenge. Explore Mars on Earth. Take a dip in the Red Sea. A portmanteau of far-out experiences await the fearless!
On Saturday, Leigh Griffiths gave Celtic their first win at home in five games. He had scored in the ninetieth minute in an uninteresting Scottish Premiership match against Partick Thistle. 

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