Pahang coast contaminated by bauxite 'doomed for three years', says scientist

Red water is seen in Sungai Balok in Kuantan, Pahang, after heavy rains caused run-off from bauxite mines to wash into the waters.
Red water is seen in Sungai Balok in Kuantan, Pahang, after heavy rains caused run-off from bauxite mines to wash into the waters.PHOTO: NSTP

PETALING JAYA - The bauxite-contaminated red sea off the Pahang coastal area is bound to be a "dead sea" for up to three years, the Malay Mail reported on Sunday(Jan 3), citing Malaysian Society of Marine Sciences chairman Harinder Rai Singh.

Waters and seas near Pahang's state capital Kuantan ran red earlier last week as downpours brought an increase in run-off from the ochre-red earth at the mines and the stockpiles, stoking environmental concerns, Reuters reported.

Dr Harinder, who is advising the environment department on the marine ecology affected by the bauxite contamination in Kuantan, said the contamination would harm the breathing system of sea creatures.

"It affects all forms of life, from the planktons to the top carnivores in the area, even the marine mammals," the Malay Mail quoted Dr Harinder, who is also a marine expert at the Malaysia National Oceanographic Data Centre, as saying.

"For example, these sediments will clog the gills of the fish and the breathing system of the clams. That is when all the marine life will start dying and it will be a dead zone."

He said experts were in the midst of ascertaining how much longer the marine life in the area could survive, and tests were being conducted daily.He said they were also ascertaining how long bauxite sediments would remain at the beach.

"What is certain is this beach would be infertile for at least two to three years depending on the government's clean up plans," he said.

"While it is possible for marine life to breed in the area after three years, they would still be in a polluted habitat."

Bauxite mines have sprung up in Malaysia since late 2014, notably in Kuantan, which faces the South China Sea. The mines have been shipping increasing amounts of the raw material to China, filling in a gap after Indonesia banned bauxite exports in early 2014, forcing the world's top aluminium producer, China, to seek supplies elsewhere.

In the first 11 months of 2015, Malaysia exported 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.

But the frantic pace of mining in Kuantan has brought in its wake a growing clamour of voices complaining of contamination of water sources and the destruction of the environment.

The Cabinet wants to temporarily halt bauxite mining until regulations, licensing and environmental protection can be put in place, a source told Reuters on condition of anonymity on Saturday.

Prime Minister Najib Razak has asked the resource minister to resolve the issues with the Pahang government, the source said.

Natural Resources and Environment Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar had previously said that Malaysia has come up with a raft of new regulations and guidelines for the industry, but needs the consent of the state government to impose them.

On Sunday Dr Wan Junaidi said he and Pahang Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Adnan Yaakob would issue a statement following the Cabinet's decision to put a temporary stop to bauxite mining in Kuantan.

Dr Harinder, the marine scientist, said the organisms would adapt to the waters but the number of species in the area would be fewer and toxin would still be present in their system.

He said the damage would not stop there as the toxin absorbed by marine life would then be passed on in the food chain.

He said the department was also conducting tests at water catchment areas near Kuantan Port to determine if it was polluted with bauxite.