Clear and present danger in Kuantan's bauxite mines

TIME BOMB?: A worker at a bauxite storage site in Bukit Goh, Pahang. Bauxite mining - potentially hazardous to Malaysians' health and the environment - went relatively unnoticed until recently.


    Jan 21, 2016

    Clear and present danger in Kuantan's bauxite mines

    MANY Malaysians were shocked to see photographs of Kuantan shrouded in red dust that went viral at the end of last year.

    Roads, houses, furniture, rivers and even the seawater had turned red from bauxite dust and sediment.

    "The mines are nothing more than gaping holes in the ground. Like a landfill in reverse, left empty and waiting for garbage," described a friend and colleague, Qishin Tariq, who is based in Kuantan.

    "The soil is a deep red, it is laterite. But as it falls on the roads, it's lighter brown.

    "Even the roofs and palm leaves have changed colour," he added.

    Bauxite mining is not a recent activity in Malaysia.

    It started two years ago and production has more than quadrupled since.

    From a capacity of 208,770 tonnes in 2013, it has grown to a staggering 20 million tonnes last year.

    What is worrying is that bauxite mining was an unregulated activity. And not only was it unregulated, but there were also a number of illegal miners eager to get into this lucrative business.

    Currently, little standard operating procedure or best operating practices are being applied by the mining companies, resulting in devastating damage to the environment and perhaps, even human health, safety and welfare.

    But why did this issue - potentially hazardous to Malaysians' health and environment - go relatively unnoticed until last month?

    "It is sad that something has to happen before something is done," said water-quality specialist Zaki Zainudin.

    "The issue has been there for quite some time and there has been this back and forth going on between the federal and state-level authorities.

    "And there have been warnings prior to this by specialists and the authorities but there was no sense of urgency to do something."

    The potential environmental problems are worrying.

    According to a statement by a panel of 17 environmental professionals and scientists (that Dr Zaki is part of), bauxite mining can cause heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury, aluminium and other pollutants to enter the rivers during rain.

    Deposits on the road surfaces during the transport of bauxite will also be picked up by run-off. And the process of "bauxite washing" generates effluent which also enters the water courses.

    These metals can adversely affect human health if they are absorbed over an extended period of time.

    On one occasion, monitoring data from the Department of Environment (DOE) showed mercury levels at the Bukit Goh intake to be at 0.0093mg/litre.

    This is almost 10 times higher than the permissible limit of 0.0010 mg/litre adopted by the Ministry of Health and DOE.

    The levels of mercury, arsenic and manganese in other rivers were also high.

    However, the Health Ministry performed its own sampling and found that the water quality met the standards.

    "The results can be contestable, there are various environmental factors, such as whether it rained, that could have caused different results," said Dr Zaki when asked about the differing results.

    "But the fact of the matter is you have a clear and present danger in bauxite mines located upstream. Do you really want to risk it?"

    Dr Zaki noted the sediment from bauxite mining not only makes the water murkier but also makes the river shallower.

    This will damage the aquatic habitats, elevate the risks of flooding and potentially disrupt the operations of the water-treatment plants.

    Malaysia's water-treatment plants have very basic technology, and Dr Zaki observed that they are not designed to treat very polluted or highly contaminated water.

    Hence, there is a risk that these metals will escape the treatment plant and enter the water distribution network to the consumers.

    However, this is not the only matter for concern.

    Fish, shellfish and other aquatic organisms may also be exposed to the heavy metals in the water.

    These heavy metals can easily accumulate up the food chain through the process called bioaccumulation.

    But one hopes that the temporary halt in mining will give the authorities time to iron out a more sustainable solution.

    The health of the people in Kuantan and its environment cannot be sidelined, no matter the economic gain.