A boy holds a sign protesting Lynas's rare-earths processing plant in Gebeng, Malaysia. Picture: AFP Source: AFP
IN the internet era, even a 64-year-old retired math teacher can become a threat to a large company.
That, at least, is the experience of Lynas. For over a year, the Australian rare-earths mining group has come under fire from Tan Bun Teet and his band of tech-savvy campaigners here on Malaysia's South China Sea coast.
The group, called Save Malaysia Stop Lynas, has disrupted Lynas's plans to open a refinery here with a nimble, internet-based campaign, drawing nationwide support through regularly updated blogs, Twitter feeds and a Facebook page. In a recent interview, chief executive Nick Curtis said Lynas underestimated the extent to which the protesters had enlisted the organising power of the web, forcing the company to delay the opening of the plant until this past November, a full year behind schedule, and to raise money it didn't initially plan for.
Sydney-based Lynas, which is listed on the Australian Securities Exchange with a market value of $1.2 billion, appeared to be onto a winner when it broke ground for a new plant near here five years ago. Global demand for exotic materials such as lanthanum and neodymium was surging as the world's appetite for hybrid cars, wind turbines and ever-faster phones with better screens grew.
The prospect of weakening China's choke-hold on 95 per cent of the world trade in these critical elements helped convince Malaysia's government that the project would be a success. It offered the firm a 12-year tax holiday to set up shop in Pahang, the home state of Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Instead, construction of the $US800 million Lynas refinery kicked off a venomous debate with local residents about how to handle the low-grade radioactive waste that comes from processing rare-earth elements. The company and the Malaysian government say the plant is safe.
The clash is also now spilling over into national politics as opposition firebrand Anwar Ibrahim incorporates the cause in his bid to topple the coalition that has governed this predominantly Muslim nation since independence from Britain in 1957. Elections are expected to be called this spring.
"If we can't challenge the government in the courts, then perhaps the election will change the game," says Mr Tan, a wiry, methodical 64-year-old.
Rare earths are a group of 17 elements valued for their magnetic and conductive properties. While harmless by themselves, they are frequently found mixed with potentially dangerous radioactive ores such as thorium. Separating and refining them can be complex and messy.
That has raised alarm among Malaysians who fear their government hasn't done enough to ensure the safety of the Lynas plant. "We can't trust them to do what's right," said Yu Siew Hong, a young mother who lives near the new facility.
Last month, Lynas secured a victory when the High Court in Kuantan dismissed protesters' allegations that Malaysian authorities improperly awarded the firm an operating license. The company's stock is also regaining interest among wary investors: J.P. Morgan Chase upgraded its recommendation on the shares to "buy" from "hold" in recent weeks.
The company's stock has continued to drift south, underscoring the difficulties still facing Lynas's plans to become a breakthrough player in the global rare-earths market. Lynas shares fell 2.4 per cent to 61 cents yesterday.
Among other things, the company still faces another judicial review sought by Mr Tan's group.
The upshot: Lynas's outlook "is still very uncertain," said Deutsche Bank analyst Chris Terry.
Mr Tan, who serves as Save Malaysia Stop Lynas's spokesman, isn't your common variety of eco-warrior. He and the other protesters hadn't taken much of an interest in environmental issues until Lynas began building its plant at the Gebeng industrial estate near Kuantan. Unlike groups such as Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth, the group didn't have experience in organising protest campaigns.
Their emergence is part of a growing trend of smaller and smaller groups targeting corporations and markets, rather than governments, to achieve their goals, sometimes with spectacular effects.
In an extreme recent example, Australian activist Jonathan Moylan organised a hoax in early January in which he and his cohorts temporarily wiped $315m off the market value of Whitehaven Coal. Mr Moylan issued a statement, purportedly from the company's bank, saying it had withdrawn funding over concerns about environmental damage. The shares later recovered and Australian market regulators are now investigating the matter.
Mr Moylan couldn't be reached for comment. Local media have quoted him as saying he issued the statement.
Mr Tan and his friends, for their part, filed a series of actions specifically aimed at damaging Lynas's ability to secure additional funding and force it to give up.
"Refining rare earths is a dirty business and we want people to know what it involves. We might not win in the courts, but whatever action we take, it bleeds Lynas a little bit more and makes it more difficult for them to raise money," says Mr Tan.
The group's flurry of writs delayed Lynas obtaining a temporary operating license until this past November, a full year behind schedule, driving a decline in the company's share price from $1.59 in February 2012 to the 61 cents now, and forcing Lynas to raise more money to keep going.
"We've raised $175m more than we wanted. It's cost our shareholders," Mr Curtis, Lynas's chief executive, said by telephone. "It's not acceptable, but it is what it is."
The government is taking notice of the protesters' growing pull, too. In December, four cabinet ministers warned in a joint statement that Lynas must export all waste material from its plant or see its operations suspended.
Lynas says it intends to process the radioactive waste into other materials, such as road surfacing, diluting it. The company plans to export the material to comply with Malaysia's requirements.
Analysts say the obstacles Lynas has faced in Malaysia prevented it from enjoying a boom in rare-earths prices. The plant is finally operating but prices for some rare-earth elements are now 80 per cent off their peaks.
Lynas's Mr Curtis concedes the opportunities lost, but views the market as now being on a more sustainable growth path.
"Hopefully, when the election is out of the way, we'll be able to get down to business," he said.