Malaysia: ‘Hot zone’ near Kuantan?

ALIZA SHAH New Straits Times

KUANTAN: THE fallout from uncontrolled and unregulated mining of bauxite in Pahang may be unleashing deadly radioactive material into the environment, contaminating the air and water sources.

This disturbing finding was made after the New Straits Times Special Probes Team commissioned an independent laboratory analysis of samples taken from a river and its estuary nearby that had been contaminated by bauxite residues.

The samples were obtained in Sungai Pengorak and Pantai Pengorak, near Kampung Selamat, where the waters had turned deep, dark red, instead of its natural green or azure hue. The photos created a buzz on social media recently, sparking concerns of a major contamination crisis.

Like most ores, bauxite contains traces of metals such as arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, lead, manganese, mercury, nickel and naturally-occurring radioactive materials, such as thorium and uranium.

Most of these elements remain with the residue, and that is why many countries which mine bauxite for the extraction of aluminium, do it with sound extraction, disposal and rehabilitation processes.

Pahang Public Amenities and Environment Committee chairman Datuk Seri Mohd Soffi Abdul Razak, however, was quick to downplay the concerns. On May 26, he declared that the so-called “red sea” phenomenon was not harmful to humans or marine life.

Soffi said analysis conducted by the state Environment Department (DoE) showed that waters near Tanjung Gelang, which had apparently been contaminated by bauxite washed up from the stockpile in Kuantan Port after recent rains, were free of heavy metals.

The results of the independent analysis by the NST Probes team, however, contradicted the findings by the state DoE. Our results, which came from samples taken five days after Soffi’s announcement, showed that not only had the uncontrolled mining resulted in the areas being contaminated with heavy metals, they also detected early stages of radiation contamination.

Four samples, two each from Sungai Pengorak and Pantai Pengorak, showed traces of thorium-232, thorium-230, uranium-234, uranium-238, and high levels of aluminium.

Thorium is a radioactive metal that is usually found in rocks and the soil. In the form of dust, thorium if inhaled, will remain in the lungs for a long time, while some may enter the bloodstream and be deposited in the bones. Inhaling thorium dust increases the risk of developing lung, pancreatic and bone cancers.

Uranium is highly radioactive and is used as a source of abundant, concentrated energy through nuclear fission. It can enter the body through inhalation, swells and cuts in the skin. Radiation poisoning can lead to cancer, or kidney and liver damage. In the long run, chronic ingestion of uranium through food, water or inhalation can lead to internal irradiation or chemical toxicity.

Bauxite ore contains 30 to 50 per cent hydrated aluminium oxide, making it the main source of aluminium. In its natural state, bauxite ores contain significant levels of natural radiation due to the presence of uranium (U-238) and thorium (Th-232). The levels of U-238 and Th-232 can range from 120 to 350 becquerel (Bq)/kg and 450 to 1,000 Bq/kg, depending on the ore.

However, there is a threefold increase in radionuclide content if the bauxite is in the form of “red mud” — the main solid residue that is the by-product alumina. This material contains iron, silica and titanium that have been removed from the digestion process.

Geochemistry and marine radiochemistry expert Professor Dr Che Abd Rahim Mohamed was presented with the lab results, and using the standard set by the World Nuclear Association, confirmed the initial stages of radioactive contamination as presented by the samples.

The NST had, in October last year, carried an exclusive report on the discovery of large deposits of bauxite in the vast oil palm plantations of Felda Bukit Goh. The settlers were told by mining companies in meetings to explain their proposals that they would each be able to rake in up to RM1.8 million in profits.

The NST was then made to understand that the discovery of bauxite deposits in the settlement was made by a company that tested the earth in the 1980s. However, the aluminium ores were not fully matured then and the company abandoned its plan to mine the bauxite.

Months before the aggressive mining activities began, the state Land and Mines Department said permits could be issued only after approval from the state executive council. The landowners were told that only they could apply for permits to unearth the aluminium ore.

The rules spelt out included that they must submit a consultant’s report, how it would be transported and how the by-products would be disposed off.

‘Long-term exposure will put villagers’ health at risk’
New Straits Times 3 Aug 15;

KUANTAN: The poorly-regulated mining of bauxite near here has resulted in the contamination of nearby waterways with heavy metals.

The results from a different set of laboratory analysis indicated high concentrations of aluminium in Sungai Pengorak, which recorded 0.7miligramme/litre (mg/l), 0.2 mg/l above the permissible level, placing it in the fifth-class of the National Water Quality Standards for Malaysia — the worst possible.

KUANTAN: Radioactive contamination from the aggressive mining of bauxite in Pahang will put local communities in danger.

Geochemistry and marine radiochemistry expert Professor Dr Che Abd Rahim Mohamed said the early stages of radioactive contamination in Sungai Pengorak and Pantai Pengorak, near Kampung Selamat, were exposing villagers to health risks.

“Prolonged exposure to polluted water and red dust from bauxite mining can increase the risk of developing cancer.

“As we breathe, residues from the bauxite will fill our lungs and create blockage, and can lead to cancer.

“There is a serious risk to marine life, too.

“The red dust will clog the gills of fish, causing them to suffocate and die.”

Rahim said the effects of overexposure to the red dust that contained radioactive elements (surface elements) would be known only when it affected the skin, respiratory system and genes.

“The Asian Rare Earth plant in Ipoh, which was closed down when the radioactive waste was proven to be hazardous to the public, is a good example.

“There are cases of people who live near the area who suffered genetic defects that led to stunted growth.”

Rahim said the nutrient-rich run-off from bauxite would enter waterways, triggering a bloom of harmful microalgae in the area.

“A high concentration of iron will encourage microalgae to bloom.

“Fish and other marine life will eat the toxic microalgae, causing them to be contaminated as well.

“Prolonged consumption of contaminated marine life will expedite the effects of radioactive and heavy metal poisoning in humans.

“We have cases in Sabah and Kelantan, where people were poisoned after eating marine life contaminated by microalgae bloom.

“Bathing in waters with a high content of microalgae will also cause itchiness,” he said, adding that the abundance of nutrients would attract jellyfish to the area.

Rahim said iron and manganese sediments from bauxite would settle on top of shellfish, such as cockles, and disrupt their respiratory process.

“Photos (taken by the team) showing hundreds of dead cockles at the seashore prove that the sea was heavily polluted due to mining activities.
“The dark red colour is also one of the signs that the water had been contaminated with iron.”

Tengku Mahkota of Pahang Tengku Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah recently raised his concern over illegal bauxite mining in the district and urged the authorities to take action against the culprits.

He said lax enforcement had resulted in illegal miners becoming bold and greedy.

Expert: Halt mining until pollution plugged
New Straits Times 3 Aug 15;

Samples taken from Pantai Pengorak, near Kampung Selamat, also showed alarming amounts of total suspended solids (TSS) at 462mg/l and turbidity at 174NTU, which explained the sea’s muddy condition. The reading, according to the Malaysian Marine Water Quality Criteria and Standard, showed that the water quality at the port and oil and gas rigs off Pahang were much better.

Water expert Dr Zaki Zainudin said the laboratory results were consistent with the murky appearance of the water at the source.

“TSS and turbidity levels at the coastal zones are definitely much higher than the ambient levels. The elevation of the TSS and turbidity in the water usually stems from sediment transport (earth, soil) either due to erosion or other activities.

“We are looking at only one aspect of the adverse impact. There may be others as well,” he said, adding that more studies and analysis should be carried out on the polluted areas.

Zaki said mining activities at the affected areas should be halted altogether until the sources of pollution were plugged, and proper mitigating and management measures were introduced.

“If indeed the contamination is the result of mining activities, appropriate measures, such as the implementation of a comprehensive Erosion and Sediment Control Plan, must be carried out before we see further damage. The effectiveness of the control measures should then be further assessed through continuous monitoring of the ambient water quality (river and coastal).”

Zaki’s points were echoed by geochemistry and marine radiochemistry expert Professor Dr Che Abd Rahim Mohamed, who asked the authorities to build a sedimentation pond to trap the bauxite residues.

“They need to prepare several settling ponds that can accommodate the bauxite residues and rainwater. The water can be released only after the sediments, which contain toxic materials, settle down in the ponds.”

Another environmental expert, who declined to be named, said the “red sea” phenomenon and poor road conditions near Kuantan Port were evidence of poor management not by the operators only, but also the port management.

“The miners should conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and among the things that they need to control is the dispersion of dust.”

The EIA would require them to determine the wind direction as part of the controlling measures.

“From there, the mining companies will need to come up with a mitigation plan to stop the dust from settling in residential areas,” the expert said, adding that lorries transporting the ore should also be properly sealed.

The expert added that the bauxite stockpiles kept at Kuantan Port, which he believed to be the cause of contamination in Sungai Pengorak, should be properly covered to reduce sediment run-off.

“Berms must be built around the stockpile. From the photos (taken by the NST team), it is clear that the berms are not designed for this purpose, that is to trap rainwater mixed with bauxite sediment from flowing into other water sources.”

Mining companies, he added, should have a system at each site where every lorry leaving the area would first have to pass a wash area to prevent sediments from being tracked off the site.

Water, fish contain high level of arsenic
ALIZA SHAH New Straits Times 5 Aug 15;

KUANTAN: DO not consume fish or other seafood from water sources contaminated with bauxite and its residue!

Public health experts have warned those here that the water sources where bauxite had seeped in were heavily contaminated with toxic chemicals, some with carcinogens.

The desperate call stemmed from the independent laboratory test results commissioned two weeks ago by the New Straits Times Probes Team on live fish samples obtained from Pantai Pengorak and Sungai Pengorak here.

Tests were conducted for metal concentration in fish from the Gebeng coastal area that had been contaminated with bauxite.

The NST received the test results late on Monday and were shocked by the readings.

The most disturbing reading was the arsenic level. The Food Regulation 1985 states that the permissible level for arsenic in fish and fishery product is 1mg/kg.

The mean reading for arsenic in the three fish samples that were submitted for the test was 101.5mg/kg, very much higher than the permissible level.

In the first sample (Fish 1), the trace of arsenic was at 70.8. Fish 2 registered 93.2, while Fish 3 was at a staggering 104.5.

“We don’t eat fish by the gramme. Imagine the levels of carcinogens being consumed in one serving,” said a scientist assisting the Probes Team in analysing the results.

Environmental health expert Professor Dr Jamal Hisham Hashim said the public should avoid consuming seafood harvested from the area as the high concentration of arsenic in them could cause cancer.

“The level of arsenic is way above the permissible limits and this poses a danger to those who consume them or are exposed to the contaminated water.

“Arsenic and nickel are two elements that can cause cancer.

“The concentration of these heavy metals would be higher in fish that had been in the water for a longer time,” he said. (The fish that were obtained as samples were only the size of a palm.)

“Contaminated smaller fish that are fed on by larger species would also result in increased levels of toxicity in the larger animal.

“This is because the larger animal is not only being contaminated through its exposure from the water, but also from the heavy metals in the smaller fish that they feed on.”

Jamal said the state government must move in quickly to mitigate the risks the public here are facing.

It is crucial, he said, that the Department of Environment and state Health Department establish the source of contamination and issue a red alert to fishermen to stop fishing in areas contaminated with bauxite.

The authorities, he said, must make sure that the fish were not sold to the public as they would not be able to tell whether the fish were contaminated or not.

“As long as the reading for heavy metals in the areas remains above the permissible level, fish and other seafood sourced from the areas cannot be sold or consumed,” he said.

The lab results also showed high traces of other heavy metals, including iron, zinc, copper, nickel and lead.

This startling find by the NST Probes Team showed how pollution from unsustainable bauxite mining here is exposing residents to health risks that go beyond dusty roads — from radiation poisoning, to the dangers posed by carcinogens in the water sources and food chain.

Long-term exposure to arsenic in drinking water can cause cancer in the skin, lungs, bladder and kidneys.

It can also cause other skin changes, such as thickening and pigmentation.

Exposure to arsenic by inhalation can also cause lung cancer. The likelihood of cancer is related to the level and duration of exposure.

Exposure to nickel can result in lung, nose, larynx and prostate cancers.

Other health risks include lung embolism, respiratory failure, birth defects, asthma and chronic bronchitis, heart disorders and allergic reactions, such as skin rashes.

Meanwhile, environmental experts who expressed their concerns about the lab results said the state government must be transparent in publishing its analysis of heavy metals, which it publicly said had been carried out.

“Those with knowledge will know that high levels of heavy metals found in marine life contaminated by bauxite will automatically mean that the water is highly-contaminated.

“We are curious to know as they had earlier declared the water to be safe,” said one expert based here, adding that even if the water turned clear from the reddish colour that it was, the fish there could not be consumed as they would still have traces of heavy metals in them.

Samples taken from bauxite mining area
ONG HAN SEAN The Star 6 Aug 15;

KUANTAN: Samples have been taken from the Sungai Pengorak area here to be tested for radioactive contamination allegedly caused by bauxite residues.

Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Adnan Yaakob said the results would be known in about a month’s time.

“The Department of Environment (DoE) and the Atomic Energy Licensing Board have already collected water, earth and bauxite samples from the sites. They have been sent to Dengkil for analysis but the findings can only be established one month from now,” Adnan told reporters after the state exco meeting here yesterday.

He said the DoE had reported that water samples collected from Sungai Pengorak and the nearby sea contained pollutants that exceeded acceptable standards.

Adnan also said the state government was not in denial of the issues raised but for the time being, bauxite mining operations would still be allowed to continue.

“There have been some improvements to bauxite mining activities ever since we issued strict orders.

“However, we cannot take the drastic measure of cancelling all of the mining licences outright because these activities contribute to the economy,” he said.

Adnan was responding to a news report alleging that unregulated bauxite mining had released radioactive materials into the environment.

The latest report contradicted state Public Amenities and Environment Committee chairman Datuk Seri Mohd Soffi Abd Razak’s earlier statement that samples from the same sites did not contain heavy metals hazardous to life forms.

Mohd Soffi said his previous statement was based on the results of a test conducted following the “red sea” incident on May 14.

“The Environment Department took samples from Sungai Pengorak and Pantai Pengorak as well as lorry wash troughs in the area. It was sent to the Chemistry Department for analysis, which did not find any traces of heavy metals.

“The Fisheries Department also confirmed that dead fish found on the beach were actually thrown overboard by fishermen who sorted out their catch while still at sea,” he said