Wednesday, September 4, 2013

New aluminium smelter galvanises opposition


 
ANTIDOTE Native villagers in Bintulu, central Sarawak, have spoken out strongly against the new Press Metal aluminium smelter in Samalaju Industrial Park.

The smelter is a flagship project in the aggressive industrialisation plan of Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud’s Sarawak Corridor of Sustainable Energy (Score).
NONEScore is Taib’s justification for the hydroelectric mega-projects at Bakun, Murum, Baram, and nine other dam sites. These are dismissed as corruption-plagued “white elephants” and land grabs by human rights and environmental activists.

In video interviews produced by People’s Documentary, a community-based NGO, local natives say the aluminium smelter has damaged their health and their livelihoods, since Press Metal began operations in Samalaju this year.

“I feel the air quality isn’t healthy, not like before (the aluminium smelter began working). The difference is huge,” Haji Lalih Tahak, a resident of Kampung Nyalau Ulu, approximately 12 km from the Press Metal smelter, told People’s Documentary in Malay.

He said the villagers have noticed that cough and fever persisted longer after the plant began operations. 

“The children are feeling the same way. I’ve sent my grandchildren to live somewhere else,” the middle-aged fisherman said.

“Farmers and fishermen face the same problem. Cucumbers, beans only produce fruit twice, and then stop. It was different in the past, the harvest was hundreds of kilos.”

He also said people are now afraid to eat the cucumbers because these are small and deformed.

“I’m against this factory. We poor people cannot make a living.”
Sabtu Sunut, the Kedayan village head of Kampung Nyalau Ulu, agreed.
“This aluminium (smelter), I know, is certainly bad,” he said in Malay. 

“But what can we do? The higher authorities want it. We have no power, whether we want it or not, it’s going ahead.”

sarawak corridor of renewable energy score project 110208 mapSamalaju is the second aluminium smelter in the Score master-plan. The first ever smelter in Malaysia was built in 2009, also by Press Metal, in Balingian, Mukah, Taib’s own state constituency.

The Mukah plant had been producing 40,000 tonnes of aluminium per year, until a state-wide blackout for six hours on June 27 caused molten aluminium to solidify and seize up its pots.

The plant was shut down, and the new Samalaju smelter ramped up. Press Metal aims for the second smelter in Bintulu to eventually produce 240,000 tonnes a year.

According to Matek anak Geram, a representative of the Sarawak Dayak Iban Association, a local NGO, Ibans in Mukah have complained of a cluster of four or five local people falling ill recently with cancer.

Among them was a man with “stage 3 cancer”, who had worked in the Mukah smelter for three months before falling ill. The man was named in the People’s Documentary video and was reported to be only 27 years old.

Press Metal’s ‘endless possibilities’

Press Metal, a company listed on Bursa Malaysia, is the largest aluminium producer in Malaysia. Its website describes aluminum as a ‘window to endless possibilities’.

Corporate affairs manager HC Foo told Malaysiakini by email that the company has been actively engaged with the local communities, and “during our visits to the longhouses, we have not observed (a) negative impact of our operations on communities”.

She did not respond to a question on whether Press Metal intends to hold a dialogue with Kampung Nyalau Ulu villagers.

“Our team has been visiting the longhouses regularly and celebrating such occasions like Gawai and Christmas with the local folks,” she said.
sarawak corridor of renewable energy score project 110208 data map
“Among the activities organised for the local communities is the Fishing Safari held at the pond right behind our Mukah smelter. Prawns and various species of fish were caught by the participants.”

Foo referred to People’s Documentary allegations as “ill-intended rumours in the market” and noted that there are over 200 aluminium smelters worldwide, including in Australia, the US, Canada and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

“The smelting technology has been improving over the last three decades. Modern smelters are now operating without major environmental issues. One of the examples is Dubai’s smelter which is situated at the city centre.”

Aluminium smelters are vast heated tubs, built for electrolysis of the raw material alumina, generated from bauxite. These smelters consume electricity voraciously, and are known to produce copious greenhouse gases and waste materials in the form of leachable fluoride and cyanide.

In 2002, according to the Voluntary Aluminium Industry Partnership, aluminium production in the US released greenhouse emissions equivalent to those of about a million cars. The industry argues efficiency has improved over the past decade.

Mukah smelter raises stink

Foo also said Press Metal’s smelters are operating in compliance with the World Bank’s standards. 

“We have in place an advanced fume treatment system (FTS) for treatment of emission. The FTS will capture the hydrogen fluoride and recycle it as aluminium fluoride for use in the smelting process. It contains the HF emissions by capturing and treating them and this has been closely monitored.”

People’s Documentary has reported that the FTS at the Press Metal smelter in Mukah was not fully switched on at night. Local Iban residents told the NGO that the smelter chimney spewed out smoke during the night. 

They complained of skin rashes, cough, breathing difficulty, sore eyes, dizziness and headache, and of dirty water and dying plants surrounding the Mukah smelter.

Press Metal may stand to lose up to RM100 million from the crippling of its Mukah plant by the June blackout, although it willclaim insurance.

On July 3, six days after the Mukah plant closure, according to local newspapers, AmResearch reduced the 2013 profit forecast for Press Metal to RM36.8 million, down from its previous estimate of RM138.4 million. Earnings per share were predicted to be 7.2 sen, less than a third of Ambank’s earlier projection of 22.2 sen.

On the same day, the local press reported that the Malaysian Rating Corporation had downgraded its rating on Press Metal’s outstanding RM317.5mil loan stocks with warrants, from A- to BBB.

Press Metal had previously reported after-tax profits of RM101.1 million in 2011, down from RM441.8 million in 2007. The company’s shares were trading at RM2.11 on Sept 3, compared to RM2.60 in early June.

KERUAH USIT is a human rights activist - ‘anak Sarawak, bangsa Malaysia'. This weekly column is an effort to provide a voice for marginalised Malaysians. Keruah Usit can be contacted atkeruah_usit@yahoo.com

~ Malaysiakini

1 comment:

Winston said...

That hideous old scum is creating monstrosities in Sarawak!!!!
The whole country is being destroyed!