SPECIAL REPORT

Pahang residents plagued by bauxite dust caused by indiscriminate mining

Rampant bauxite mining in state has affected the environment and residents' health

Ms Hasnah Mohamad has been breathing in air polluted by bauxite dust for close to three years since mining of the ore began in mineral-rich Pahang state in 2013.

Her home in Kampung Selamat is right outside the state capital's Kuantan Port, where mountains of bauxite stockpiles are stored.

The walls of houses in the area are caked with dust and many residents have resorted to shielding their shops and homes with tarpaulins.

BREATHING IN TOXIC AIR

If it is suffocating for others to breathe in the air here for just 10 minutes, imagine us suffering here for years.

MS HASNAH MOHAMAD, who lives close to Kuantan Port where giant stockpiles of bauxite are kept.

  • Growing volumes

  • Details of bauxite mining in Malaysia, which has attracted environmental scrutiny.

    • Bauxite is refined to produce alumina, which is used to produce aluminium - a component in the manufacture of cans, household appliances and aircraft.

    • Pahang state collected RM46.7 million (S$15.8 million) in bauxite royalties last year, a huge jump from RM2.4 million in 2014.

    • The Pahang government could earn four times more in revenue, if illegal mining volumes are included, said the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.

    • Malaysia exported 20 million tonnes of bauxite to China in the first 11 months of last year, from 162,000 tonnes in 2013.

    • Bauxite mining in Pahang grew exponentially last year after Indonesia banned it in 2014.

    Eunice Au

The air, which felt thick with dust as I inhaled it, had a strong, distinct smell.

It made me cough and gave me a headache in mere minutes during my survey of the area.

"If it is suffocating for others to breathe in the air here just for 10 minutes, imagine us suffering here for years," Ms Hasnah, 48, who has been suffering from respiratory problems, told The Straits Times recently.

Many other Pahang residents have also been plagued by the problem. Some have seen bauxite mining right in their villages.

Others cough as hundreds of lorries pass by their homes each day to get to the port. Some of the trails covered in filthy red earth span at least 40km.

Roadside hawker stall worker Milawaty Abdul Samad, 41, was worried for her 21-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son's health.

"I am afraid because the bauxite dust has bad effects. Not only that, I worry that those speeding lorries carrying bauxite might accidentally hit my children," she said.

Indeed, the indiscriminate and largely unregulated bauxite mining activities have stained the state crimson.

It coloured the rivers and sea water near Pantai Balok and Pantai Batu Hitam red during a period of heavy rains in December last year.

After months of public outcry which saw residents holding protests and torching lorries carrying bauxite, and particularly after Malaysian media started highlighting the issue last August, the National Resources and Environment Ministry (NRE) finally announced a three-month moratorium on bauxite mining that began on Jan 15 in order to get the mining under control and clean up the state.

NRE Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar pinpointed the run-off from bauxite stockpiles at Kuantan Port as the cause of the red sea phenomenon.

Samples collected from the affected areas found that the presence of suspended solids such as aluminium, iron, manganese and chromium was much higher than in unaffected rivers.

During the three-month ban, the port and miners are expected to clear all the bauxite stockpiles and install filtration facilities to properly wash and transport the ore without contaminating the environment. But experts say the damage has already been done.

The red waters are a clear indicator that the rivers and sea have been polluted, said Mara Technology University biology department professor Harinder Rai Singh, one of a group of concerned scientists who are assisting the government in studying the extent of damage that bauxite has wreaked on the environment.    

"Erosion studies, sedimentation studies and many others are ongoing, but we can safely say the damage is quite bad," Mr Singh said.

It is crucial to put a halt to harmful mining activities in order to allow the ecological system to repair itself, he said.

It could possibly take two years or more to repair the damage, Mr Singh said. Even then, it will likely never return to its original state with the same level of organism diversity.

The Straits Times accompanied a group of researchers from the National University of Malaysia and activists from the Malaysian Nature Society to collect independent water and sediment samples from several rivers in Pahang for analysis.

They were concerned that bauxite mining had released a high concentration of naturally occurring metal ions in the soil, such as mercury, cadmium, arsenic and chromium. These may have flowed into the rivers and ended up in the drinking water of Pahang's residents.

"In small quantities, there is little effect but this is large-scale mining. The sheer volume of metal ions being released is cause for worry," Professor Yang Farina Abdul Aziz, from the School of Chemical Sciences, said.

However, despite the negative consequences, Malay settlers sitting on bauxite-rich land are adamant that mining should go on.

"Why should anyone disrupt Allah's blessings for the settlers?" said Bukit Goh Bauxite Problems Coordination Committee chairman Abdul Wahid Manap.

Some 248 out of 671 settlers in his village, Bukit Goh - the place where much ore has already been mined - have signed agreements allowing mining companies to plunder their land for bauxite for the prospect of earning millions.

Some of them have received deposits of around RM100,000 (S$34,000) from illegal miners looking to circumvent the law, with the promise of more to come, depending on the amount and quality of bauxite that can be mined on their land.

With the temporary ban in place, some of these settlers are stuck in a limbo. Having already had their oil palm trees felled in preparation for the mining, they will not be earning income from either bauxite or a oil palm harvest.

Much of the blame for the rampant problem and presence of an estimated 200 illegal miners fell on Pahang Menteri Besar Adnan Yaakob. He, in turn, highlighted the fact that the state government was constrained by its shortage of enforcement staff. "Our Land and Mines Office has only 18 employees for the whole state," Datuk Seri Adnan told reporters.

And some of those employees have been found to have sold documents required to transport bauxite to illegal miners. So far, four have been charged in court by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.

But the bosses of illegal mining companies have managed to evade the authorities' dragnet thus far.

Now, a month after the moratorium was imposed, residents are rejoicing as many roads and drains have been cleaned of bauxite dust by several agencies, including the Fire and Rescue Department, waste disposal company SW Corp and its contractor Alam Flora.

Looking ahead, Kuantan Port Consortium general manager Azahari Mohammad Yusof said the port is following the ministry's guidelines by setting up barriers around the wharfs to stop bauxite from falling into the sea.

Datuk Azahari said that, in the future, lorries will be allowed to send their load to the port only when there is a vessel waiting, instead of stockpiling bauxite there.

A long-term solution utilising a closed conveyor system is also in the works, but this would take at least 11/2 years to install.

On the part of the federal government, Datuk Wan Junaidi told The Straits Times that the ministry has already drawn up a regulatory framework for bauxite mining.

Suggestions include requiring miners to skim the topsoil of a plot and set it aside.

Once mining is done, they have to replace the topsoil.

However, while the federal government may come up with the protocol, the onus of implementing and enforcing the guidelines still falls on - and will rely entirely on the political will of - the state government.

"This framework is a recommendation. We cannot insist. It is not compulsory," Mr Junaidi said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 16, 2016, with the headline 'A red curse in Pahang'. Print Edition | Subscribe