Saturday, 23 February 2019

Letter to the Editor: Bauxite Mining Still Poses Clear and Present Danger


(Photo credits: Fuziah Salleh)

Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) Selangor is disappointed that the Ministry of Water, Land, and Natural Resources has made the decision to lift the moratorium on the extraction and export of bauxite in Pahang (18 Feb). 

The primary motivation for the decision appears to be the high market demand for bauxite and the economic gains to be made from it. The environment and public health and safety are merely secondary considerations. 

Although the Minister has indicated that there will be new standard operating procedures (SOPs) and tighter regulations in place, the public has yet to be informed of what these SOPs are and how they compare with previous and existing safeguards, and how transparent and effective the monitoring and enforcement measures will be. 

Even as far back as 2016, SOPs such as requiring bauxite to be transferred via safer pakamatic lorries, rerouting lorries to avoid heavily populated areas and setting up a designated bauxite stockpiling centre failed to stop industry players and enforcement agencies from flouting the regulations with impunity. What assurance is there that this time the same industry players and monitoring and enforcement agencies will not put personal interest and profits before the environment and people? 

Further, the proposed fine of RM500,000 and three months’ imprisonment under the Pahang State Mineral Enactment 2001 appears to be too lenient for such a lucrative industry. There appears to be no prerogative afforded to the enforcement bodies to shut down and ban industry players found to be flouting the SOPs. 

We must not lose sight of the reasons why the moratorium was imposed in the first place. Intensive bauxite mining and processing activities caused major contamination of water sources, air and soil pollution, and an increase in health complaints, particularly respiratory-related, from the local residents. The environmental and scientific community had also reported that bauxite mining and processing had resulted in the leaching of toxic heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium, lead and chromium into river systems, poisoning fish and aquatic life and posing a danger to the fishing and coastal communities. 

The public has so far not been informed of how wastewater and other waste materials from the bauxite mining and processing activities will be treated and disposed of, and from where the water for bauxite washing will be sourced. This raises concerns that there will be a growth in illegal dumping grounds for the waste generated from the resumption of bauxite mining and export activities. 

News reports indicate that the Pahang Mineral Operators Association would be regulating its own members and activities. This again will raise the question of how objective, neutral and effective they will be, considering that they have not demonstrated exemplary commitment to environmental protection and public health and safety in 2015 and 2016 prior to the moratorium. There must be greater opportunity and space for neutral civil society groups and environmental organisations to participate in the monitoring and reporting process, and independent environmental auditors must be engaged to inspect and report on the bauxite mining and exporting activities without fear or favour. 

MNS Selangor is not against development or state governments managing their natural resources to maintain economic growth. We are, however, in favour of the responsible management of natural resources and greater transparency and accountability. Economic growth cannot be sustainable or legitimate if it comes at the expense of the environment and public health and safety.