It is easy to mistake Papan, located in the northern region of peninsular Malaysia, as the movie set of an old Chinese film. But the town hides a danger that’s been with it for decades.
Juxtaposed against sweeping hills in the background, the town's only main street is lined with charming shop houses, with some dating back to more than a century old.
A bustling town during the tin mining boom in the 19th century, Papan's dilapidated pre-war shop houses are the only marks left of its former glory. Many left the town after the rich deposits of tin were unearthed, and the residents left are mainly retirees who spend their mornings leisurely loitering and chatting in coffee shops without the cares of time.
Life in Papan does not give any indication this sleepy town has been a radioactive waste dump site for more than two decades. The site is still actively managed by Mitsubishi Chemical, a unit of the Japanese conglomerate Mitsubishi, despite the cessation of factory operations for rare earth mining more than 15 years ago.
Residents in Papan and nearby Bukit Merah say they worry that history will repeat itself.
In 1979, a rare earth mining factory was set up in Bukit Merah, located just three kilometers away. The company, known as Asia Rare Earth (ARE), is a collaboration between Mitsubishi Chemicals and some local businessmen. State-owned investment vehicles also provided funding.
During the height of the factory's operations, the radioactive waste was transported into Papan.
In April, the Perak state development corporation signed a agreement with Hong Kong-based CVM Minerals to explore the possibility of mining rare earth and other minerals in Bukit Merah. But the agreement sparked protests, leading to its quick cancelation. The chief minister of the Perak state government, Zambry Abd Kadir, is quoted as saying the state government will not allow another rare earth factory to operate in Bukit Merah. The state government has declined to respond to questions sent by VOA.
The CVM Minerals deal followed news that the Australian company Lynas Corp would build a rare earth refinery in Kuantan, in the neighboring state of Pahang. That project has also led to protests and it is now on hold. The Malaysian government says it has not issued a license for the company to import rare earth ores into the country for processing. A decision on the matter is not expected for several weeks.
Bukit Merah is rich with rare earth minerals that are important elements in a variety of technology-based products such as computer displays, hybrid and electric vehicles, as well as energy-saving light bulbs. However, mining rare earth minerals leaves behind radioactive waste that will stay on the earth for decades.
Today, a 10-meter-high wall of granite and rocks forms a hill in the outskirts of Papan town, burying the radioactive waste underneath. The property, now a permanent radioactive waste dump site, is still managed by ARE, but the rights will be transferred to the Perak state government in 2016.
Recalling the incident in the 1980s, Ong Hock Huat, 71, a resident of Papan, said trucks bearing the Mitsubishi Chemical logo started entering Papan repeatedly, creating suspicion among residents. “Sometimes we see many Japanese and Westerners coming into the town as well. But we didn't know why they [had] so much interest in a little town like this and what those trucks were carrying and unloading in Papan,” he said.
Ong said some residents heard rumors that the bags of 'earth' that these trucks were carrying were poisonous. “But we are not highly educated. We didn't know what this 'poison' actually is, until we heard that there were cases of serious health problems occurring in Bukit Merah, and so we protested and tried to stop them from coming in,” he said.
Research done by foreign and local safety analysts has shown that Bukit Merah town has exceptionally high radiation levels, which is a strong linkage to higher occurrences of cancer among its residents.
Within five years, there were eight cases of leukemia detected among its residents. So far, there are no cases of cancer among Papan residents, but the fear stays on among its residents.
Today, Ong, a retired businessman, grows passion fruits in a ruined and abandoned shop house just next to where he lives. “My friend, who is a farmer, tells me that passion fruits have cancer-preventing properties. So, I grow them and give to my neighbors for free. Who knows what the effects of living near the toxic dump site may bring?” he said.
Hew Yun Tuck, a resident-turned-activist of Bukit Merah, said although people are dying from the high radiation levels in the town, the residents have nowhere to go. “I have children who are barely in their teens at that time. Yes, I do worry about their health, but what can I do?” he said.
Protests by the residents of Bukit Merah and Papan towns began to garner attention in the 1980s and at one point, 30,000 residents and supporters demonstrated to call for the closure of the factory. Eight residents also filed a class action lawsuit against ARE.
Despite several protests from the residents of Bukit Merah and Papan, the government continued to allow radioactive waste to be dumped in the open ground in Papan and the factory to operate in Bukit Merah.
“The government has struck a deal with the Japanese company and we, the residents, are seen as anti-establishment if we go against them,” Hew said. During one of the large protests, some residents, including Hew, were arrested and detained without trial under the Internal Security Act.
“The government told us that the factory is good for Bukit Merah residents, as it brings jobs for locals. But, only about 10 of the residents actually worked in the factory and Bukit Merah did not prosper significantly, unlike what we have been told,” Hew said.
Lai Kwan, 69, was one of the residents that worked for the rare earth factory in the early 1980s. Every morning, she would be required to wear a monitoring device to check her exposure to radiation. “If it surpassed the permitted levels, we [would] be asked to leave the factory and not work there at all,” she said.
Lai Kwan conceived her seventh child while working at the factory. “I didn't know what the factory was producing. I only wanted to feed my children from the money earned for working there,” she said.
Lai Kwan recalled that during her tenure at the factory, she heard stories of several miscarriages among the pregnant women in Bukit Merah that were also workers in the factory.
“I left because I was worried for my children. Who would take care of them if anything were to happen to me?” she said.
While Lai Kwan does not have serious health problems, her seventh child, Kok Leong, is born with severe health and developmental problems. At the age of 29, he has no language skills, severe eye defects and dependent on care for life.
“I believe it is a consequence of working in the factory. If I have known earlier, I would not have worked there at all,” she said.
In 1985, the residents of Bukit Merah obtained an injunction to stop ARE from operating until it meets safety standards. But it wasn't until 1992 when ARE closed down the factory operations as a result of increasing public pressure that threatened to launch a global boycott on Mitsubishi products.
Mitsubishi Chemical launched a large cleanup exercise of the factory, which included building and managing the permanent dump site in the outskirts of Papan. The company also donated about $160,000 to the Bukit Merah community as part of an out-of-court settlement.
While the factory has since closed down, truckloads of radioactive debris and material are still carried into the site to be buried, while a more comprehensive underground waste management system is under construction.
Some residents in Papan and Bukit Merah are skeptical that the government will honor its words to keep rare earth mining out of the area. “We have fought for our town and the biggest vindication from that effort is the closure of the factory. If another rare earth factory appears in our backyard again, it does not matter if we have bad knees; we will rise and stand against it,” Hew said.