KUALA LUMPUR: A team of scientists has warned that the damage to the environment from the indiscriminate and poorly regulated mining of bauxite may be so severe that the ecosystem may never recover.
The adverse health effects on the Kuantan public could be devastating, and could last for generations.
The group of 17 professionals covering a diverse array of environmental disciplines have called for the Pahang government to issue an immediate stop work order on bauxite mining in the district.
This marked the first time that a group of independent scientists had arrived at a consensus and issued a dire and comprehensive warning of the consequences of the unrestrained mining of bauxite in the state.
Calling itself Responsible Citizens of Malaysia and Conscientious Professionals and Scientists, the group cautioned that Kuantan would suffer long-term health and environmental consequences if the authorities ignored the seven conditions it said must be imposed on every bauxite mine and mining operator.
It stressed that a moratorium on all the activities must be enforced with immediate effect, saying that this was vital to mitigate the damage.
Among the recommendations that came with the report on the grave situation in Kuantan was the requirement for miners to produce an Erosion Sediment Control Plan (ESCP), which must be a part of an Environmental Monitoring Plan that is closely and diligently monitored.
The miners, they said, must also come up with a rehabilitation plan once the mining ceases. It was reported that the mining of bauxite would go on at least until next year.
Their comprehensive, 14-page report on the unfolding disaster stemming from poorly regulated open cast mining of bauxite, which was made exclusively available to the New Sunday Times, also touched extensively on how transportation of the resource not only posed a serious public health threat, but is also causing irreversible environmental damage.
They reported that the export of bauxite to China had more than quadrupled, from 208,770 tonnes in 2013 to 963,000 tonnes in 2014. Last year, it hit a staggering 20 million tonnes. In January of last year, the amount of ore exported was just 343,000 tonnes. By September, the number had risen to an astounding 3.7 million tonnes. All at the expense of a suffering Kuantan public, forced to choke on the red dust.
The NST had, in early August, collected water, marine life and dust samples in Kuantan for independent laboratory analyses. The results were startling. At least two other agencies which followed up on the NST’s series of reports on the problem came up with equally worrying findings.
The authorities, which were supposed to keep the problem in check, have so far not yielded any positive results.
Their only success to date is reflected in the number of summonses issued to bauxite lorry drivers, although the issuing authority admitted that these tickets were largely ignored. A large portion of the blame had been dumped on illegal miners.
The NST was made to understand that the group of scientists, whose members had stationed themselves in Kuantan for a few weeks to study the problem which had besieged the city for more than a year, was expected to forward their report to the state government soon. The report comes with a recommended action plan.
“It is our professional duty and responsibility to objectively and scientifically assess the environmental and human conditions related to this bauxite mining issue and present our recommendations for corrective and remedial measures,” the experts said. The scientists said their discovery that ore processing outside of the mineral tenement area, including bauxite-washing that was being done close to water sources, was a cause for grave concern.
The concern, they said, was real as rivers were being barricaded and dammed up to facilitate washing of the ore to concentrate its bauxite content. They added that the stability of these structures, if compromised, could result in serious repercussions to the downstream areas when mud and sediment come gushing down.
“This very real risk is amplified during the rainy season as the volume of water increases.” This, they said, was in addition to the issue of several water intake points being downstream of many bauxite mines. They underscored the risk of heavy metals, including arsenic, mercury and aluminium, as well as other pollutants, entering the rivers during rain.
The effects on aquatic life in Pahang’s rivers, including the more than 400 species of freshwater fishes, five species of terrapins and numerous species of invertebrates and aquatic plants, can only be guessed.
“While the present situation is disturbing enough, its longer term persistence would mean that there would be no scope for the affected waterways to return to their original state. The changes would be so extreme that the fundamental habitat qualities that support our local biodiversity would be lost and we would be left with a degraded ecosystem,” they cautioned.
The group also revealed that they had, on Dec 26 and 27, monitored the 24-hour PM10 levels in Bukit Goh, Beserah (just outside residents’ homes), and the Gebeng Industrial Estate, adjacent to Kuantan Port.
The result: the 24-hour PM10 levels recorded outside the houses were at 222.13 g/m3 (Bukit Goh) and 164.05 g/m3 (Beserah).
The sampling carried out in Gebeng showed a reading of 276.79μg/m3. All three exceeded the standard levels underlined under the 24-hour Malaysian Ambient Air Quality Standard for PM10, which is 150 μg/m3.
Samples at the house in Beserah, located close to a bauxite mine and along a bauxite transport route, were taken on a day when the transportation of bauxite had ceased.
PM10 dust can easily penetrate the human lower respiratory tract and cause or trigger respiratory problems like asthma, lower respiratory tract infections, pneumonia, chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Depending on the chemical content of the PM10 dust, they may also experience other health problems.
The scientists highlighted the NST’s August reports on the high levels of arsenic in fish caught in Sungai Pengorak. The arsenic content of three fish samples ranged from 70.8 to 104.5g/kg, more than a staggering 70,000 times the permissible limit for arsenic in fish and fishery products of 1mg/kg, under the Malaysian Food Regulation 1985.
“We should be reminded that the lack of evidence of destruction and harm to the environment and humans should not be used as an excuse not to act or to delay action.
“When there is potential harm to the environment or humans, we should be proactive and not reactive in our approach.
“This approach of harm avoidance is based on the Precautionary Principle, which states that when human activities may lead to morally unacceptable harm that is scientifically plausible but uncertain, actions shall be taken to avoid or diminish that harm.”
They said the authorities should not dismiss such reports without investigating for themselves.
“A recent news report in the NST (Dec 29) showed a disturbing photo of a young man collecting clams (remis) from the bauxite-contaminated Sungai Pengorak and two children playing in the bauxite-contaminated sea waters off Batu Hitam beach.
“If heavy metals are present in the river water as we strongly suspect, they will be easily concentrated in the clams, which are bivalves and filter feeders.
“Wading and swimming in the contaminated waters are also dangerous as heavy metals in the water can penetrate human skin, eyes and mucous linings. Swimmers will also ingest water,” they warned.
While the state authorities have played down the risks posed by bauxite mining, the state Fisheries Department had, on Dec 31, warned the public against consuming seafood obtained from bauxite-contaminated waters off Pahang.
Its director, Adnan Hussain Adnan, also advised against fishing, which he said was not suitable in these areas due to the high level of turbidity. It is understood that the group will also forward their report to Putrajaya.
“It is absolutely imperative that the state government address the issues by controlling every single mining operation at the source. Only then can they be made sustainable in the long run.
“A populated area cannot be transformed into a huge mining area without serious consequences to the population of 400,000.
“The state government cannot abdicate its responsibility to look after the well-being and health of these people.
“Justifying extensive mining in a well-populated area simply because they give income to a small group of people is totally wrong and unheard of in this day and age.
“In developed countries, this will undoubtedly result in civil suits,” they said.