KUALA LUMPUR • Rivers and the sea ran red in parts of Malaysia this week after two days of heavy rain brought an increase in run-off from the booming and largely unregulated bauxite mining industry.
Demand from China for the aluminium ingredient has fed a rapid rise in bauxite mining in the third-largest state of Pahang, in the east of peninsular Malaysia, and concern is growing about the impact on the environment.
Media yesterday showed images of red sea and rivers near the state capital of Kuantan, the centre of the industry and the location of a port from which much of the bauxite is shipped.
Reporters said the sea was discoloured along a 15km stretch of coast. "Of course, the federal government and state government are concerned," Natural Resources and Environment Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said. "There has been an ongoing discussion but unfortunately during the monsoon season, things got worse. Stockpiles leach out into the sea."
In just three years, Malaysia has transformed itself from a modest supplier to the top source of the material for China.
The change came after Indonesia banned bauxite exports early last year, forcing China, the world's top aluminium producer, to seek supplies elsewhere.
In the first 11 months of this year, Malaysia shipped more than 20 million tonnes of bauxite to China, up nearly 700 per cent on the previous year. In 2013, it shipped just 162,000 tonnes.
Residents have complained of contamination of water sources and the destruction of their environment as mining operations remove the red earth rich in bauxite.
Datuk Dr Wan Junaidi has told Parliament there is little regulation of the industry and how it manages waste. The ministry has prepared regulations but they have yet to be adopted by the state.
Kuantan Member of Parliament Fuziah Salleh said it was a simple process for companies to get a licence to extract laterites, basic materials for aluminium production. Once they have the licences, they can start extracting, she said.
The state government has done little to protect the environment and residents during the industry's growth, she said.
This was despite it finding in August that levels of aluminium, mercury, arsenic and manganese in one river were at a level so high it was unusable for consumption, irrigation or recreation, she said.
Ms Fuziah cited a report from the state's environment department. "The situation is lawless," she said. "It's a free for all. Bauxite could easily be sustainable but they are doing terrible things to the environment." Pahang's top environment official was unavailable for comment yesterday.
The media has reported angry residents burning trucks taking bauxite to the port in protest over the environmental impact.