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Malaysian rare earth protesters take on Aussie mining company

Blog post by Senator Lee Rhiannon

On Wednesday, I met a dynamic group of Malaysians in Canberra looking to win support for their campaign to stop an Australian mining company polluting the land and water around Kuantan on the Malaysian east coast.

Lynas Corporation plans to ship tens of thousands of tonnes of rare earth to a refining plant in Malaysia.

The very obvious question the members of the Malaysian delegation asked me was why was this company shipping this ore from Western Australia 5000 kilometres to Malaysia. 

We all felt we knew the answer. Lynas would find it hard to go against public opinion in Australia to set up a refining plant that would result in radioactive by-products. Rare earths, a group of about 17 metals, are normally found with thorium and uranium.

I was told how Lynas is already not following their obligations under Malaysian laws, which are actually already quite minimal in providing protection for locals and the environment.  The company is yet to disclose their waste management plans and the Detailed Environment Impact Assessment is not available on the internet.

The biggest concern for the people I met with is that there are no long-term storage plans for the radioactive thorium. Understandably they believe there is no safe way of managing this waste, particularly so close to where people live, fish and work. 

The 13 activists include lawyers, engineers and IT workers. Their campaign strategy was most impressive. During their Australian visit they have staged protests outside the headquarters of Lynas, undertaken extensive lobbying around the country and organised numerous meetings with locals, particularly in Western Australia.

In Malaysia their group has been organising weekly protests. 

Understandably members of the delegation expressed annoyance with their government for offering Lynas a 12-year tax holiday. The current high prices for rare earths means this company is set to generate $1.7 billion a year in exports.

We had about half an hour to have a good discussion about building their campaign to stop Lynas constructing the refinement plant in Malaysia. 

Support is building for the campaign. Many locals remember the big protests more than 20 years ago against a similar plant operated by Mitsubishi. It was closed in 1992 and the company is now involved in a $100 million cleanup. The site of this rare earth refinement is regarded as one of Asia's largest radioactive waste cleanup sites. 

I will be speaking to my colleagues about how we can help ensure an Australian company does not ruin the livelihood of locals and cause extreme environmental damage.

The briefing provided by this delegation was very informative. Check out their website and their excellent video.

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