After Martian landscape experience in Kuantan, bauxite mining set to resume

The EIA report lists three major concerns, which include river and air pollution.

Six years ago, Putrajaya put an end to the bauxite rush in Kuantan, Pahang, when the media highlighted how mining activities had literally painted the town red, with affected areas appearing similar to the Martian landscape.

However, the moratorium on bauxite mining in Kuantan has been lifted and a Pahang government-owned body will helm a new project.

An environmental impact assessment (EIA) report for the project showed that the state executive council meeting on May 12, 2017, agreed to establish a “one-stop centre” involving multiple state government agencies to carry out the proposed mining operation.

The Pahang State Development Corporation (PKNP) was appointed as the lead agency, its subsidiary PKNP Mineral Industries Sdn Bhd will be the trustee holder to coordinate the operation and BG Mining Sdn Bhd, the mining operator.

The proposed mining site, which covers 3,642.176 hectares (the size of about 6,806 football fields), is located at Bukit Goh and Bukit Kuantan, some 20km from Kuantan.

(The map is based on coordinates provided by the EIA report, it may not represent the exact range of the proposed mining site. For an exact range of the site, please refer to the EIA report.)

It is estimated that 170,000 tonnes of bauxite will be mined each month and it will take three years and eight months for the site to be fully mined.

The public viewing of the EIA report started on June 22 and will remain open until July 21. Members of the public are encouraged to provide their feedback during this period.

The EIA report, prepared by KenEp Consultancy And Services, points out that there are three major concerns regarding the proposed mining plan, namely the pollution of rivers, the loss of fauna and their habitats and the pollution of local living conditions.

Effluents might pollute rivers during a heavy storm

The report notes that the mining company proposed to establish two tailing retention areas. Each will have four compartments to store tailing material in order to avoid them from being discharged into the river.

Despite this, there is still the risk of the river becoming polluted.

The EIA report warns that if there is a heavy downpour or human negligence, the mining effluent can discharge into the river. As a result, the downstream of Sungai Pahang will be contaminated with aluminium.

The report estimates that the pond’s effective rainfall is 145mm. Once the retention capacity is exceeded, the effluent from two tailing retention areas will be discharged into Sungai Riau respectively and confluent into Sungai Kuantan.

With the Kobat Dam and several Water Treatment Plants (WTP) located downstream of Sungai Kuantan, the EIA report warns that “mining activities may potentially contaminate the drinking water sources”.

In order to analyse the “worst-case scenario”, water samples were taken from seven locations along Sungai Kuantan, Sungai Riau and Sungai Mabuk in 2018.

Following this, the EIA simulated and estimated the impact of bauxite residue on the water quality when it is being discharged.

According to the National Water Quality Standards (NWQS), if there is 0.5mg of aluminium in one litre of water, the water will be classified as Class IV, which is only for irrigation purposes, and not suitable for consumption.

The EIA report found that Sungai Kuantan and Sungai Riau have high concentrations of aluminium (1.72mg/L on average, based on water sampling results).

Their simulation found that if both tailing retention areas exceed capacity, Sungai Riau’s concentration of aluminium will increase to 0.38mg/L, but when it joins Sungai Pahang, it will decrease and remain close to the level before the mining site was established.

However, the report acknowledges that the mining plan will further deteriorate water quality downstream of Sungai Kuantan.

One of the EIA’s proposed mitigation methods is for the mining operation to adopt a more stringent effluent limit (aluminium level of 1mg/L).

This is in comparison to the standard adopted by the Department of Minerals and Geoscience for a mining site (aluminium level of 10mg/L).

Besides aluminium, the EIA report predicts that other heavy metals such as iron, arsenic, mercury, cadmium, lead, nickel and manganese will also flow into the river.

It is estimated that there is a slight increase of heavy metals at the immediate discharge point at Sungai Riau, but this decreases after joining Sungai Kuantan.

It must be noted that Kuantan’s water sources were polluted by these heavy metals when bauxite mining activities were first carried out in the area.

Kuantan MP Fuziah Salleh

In November 2015, Kuantan MP Fuziah Salleh cited a Department of Environment (DOE) report which reveals that four rivers in Kuantan were heavily polluted with mercury. She believes that the contamination was due to pollution caused by bauxite mining activities.

Coincidentally, the four polluted rivers are located near the Bukit Goh mining site.

Prior to this, the New Straits Times commissioned tests on live fish from Pantai Pengorak and Sungai Pengorak and found that the samples contained high levels of arsenic and nickel.

Later on, the then natural resources and environment minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar confirmed that bauxite-mining activities in the state had led to various environmental contaminations. The DOE study found that the levels of aluminium, cadmium, iron, lead, chromium and manganese exceeded the allowable limits.

Exposure to heavy metals can be harmful. For example, exposure to high levels of aluminium will lead to bone diseases, Alzheimer’s disease and other brain ailments, while exposure to arsenic increases the risk of cancer. Whereas mercury poisoning can cause brain, kidney and lung damage and even death.

Human negligence during the implementation phase

The EIA report further warns that even if the project site functions as expected, human negligence, such as the illegal release of wastewater or solid waste as well as the leakage or spillage of fuel and other hazardous materials, can harm the water quality.

The report further notes the risk of water from the ponds breaching out, which could be triggered by overtopping “in an unlikely event”.

“It is difficult to predict where pond breach would be initiated and precisely what corrective actions could be taken promptly to avert pond breach,” it says.

The report suggests that an emergency response plan should be prepared to reduce the risk of water quality deterioration. If a pond breach happens, the mining company has to immediately notify and alert the downstream users not to use the water for consumption.

Habitat fragmentation due to scattered mining pattern

The second major concern highlighted by the EIA report is the loss of fauna and habitat, human-wildlife conflicts, protected wildlife being hunted or becoming roadkill.

Even the forest reserve bordering the proposed mining site will face the risk of illegal encroachment.

The 235ha Bukit Kuantan Forest Reserve, situated to the north of the proposed mining site, is surrounded by oil palm plantations and a quarry belonging to the neighbouring Terengganu state.

The EIA’s fieldwork discovered that there are signs of illegal tree felling and encroachment in the forest reserve, which is not involved in the mining plan.

Warning that it might still be affected by land encroachment for timber and planting, the EIA proposes the erecting of a perimeter fence.

Although the forest reserve is relatively small and completely fragmented, the EIA report found that the forest and the oil palm plantation within the proposed project have “a fair amount of wildlife and fauna population and diversity” with numerous protected species of mammals and birds.

According to the report, habitat fragmentation is evident at the proposed project as the previous bauxite mining activities did not follow a uniform phasing direction but in a scattered pattern.

It warns that the proposed project will cause further fragmentation as a similar method will be adopted.

The report explains that this is because the owners of several land lots have yet to approve the lands for mining purposes and it is still under negotiation.

Protected wildlife hunted or becoming roadkill

As a result of habitat loss and further fragmentation, wildlife in the area will face competition and conflicts due to the reduced habitat capacity.

The EIA report predicts that some wildlife might sustain injuries or even die in the process and eventually lead to fauna loss and reduction.

Once the wildlife lose their habitat, human-wildlife conflicts will occur at mining sites or at nearby Felda settlements.

The report says that the long-tailed macaque, pig-tailed macaque, wild boar and common palm civets, which are present in large numbers, will steal food, cause disturbance and damage.

Besides, when the land clearing and mining activities are carried out, medium and small-sized, slow-moving wildlife, nocturnal or strictly arboreal (tree canopy dwelling) species and species with young hatchlings or chicks may not be able to escape.

They also face the risk of ending up as roadkill if they cross into nearby highways.

The report specifically mentions that the survey sighted the Malayan tapir, which is listed as an endangered species under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list, in the bordering forest.

To avoid these animals from becoming roadkill, the report suggests that mining work should start from the highway and roads. Apart from this, barriers and fences should be put up together with signages to alert road users.

The EIA is also concerned that the workers and outsiders will hunt, collect, keep or disturb the wildlife during the mining operation.

“They may even take the animals to be sold or to be kept as pets,” it states.

The EIA report advises the mining operator to put up signboards to remind the contractors and workers that hunting, collecting or possessing any wildlife is strictly prohibited and the authorities should be alerted of such offences.

Another mitigation measure is to have related officers conduct daily wildlife management talks. These officers will help to rescue or relocate the animals if necessary, with the cost borne by the mining operator.

Residents will be affected by dust and noise

The third major concern in the EIA report is related to the health and well-being of residents living near the mining site. It predicts that the project will result in dust and noise pollution.

“It is likely that air pollution problems will be significant at the mine as the ore will undergo a washing process,” it adds.

However, the cumulative of PM (particulate matter)10 and PM2.5 are within the acceptable range and the impact on air quality will be insignificant when control measures are in place. Particulate matter is the sum of all solid and liquid particles suspended in air, many of which are hazardous.

The measures include spraying water regularly on unpaved roads and covering the stockpile with impervious sheets in order to avoid wind erosion.

“(After a period when the mine is fully operational,) if there is high dust contamination on the leaves or trees in the surrounding areas, this means the project implementation failed to prepare the environment that should be provided,” the EIA report states.

It also points out that dust or PM are linked to respiratory problems such as altered lung function, coughing, shortness of breath, asthma and lung cancer.

Malaysiakini visited the Felda Bukit Goh in 2015, where residents complained about how their area is covered in dust, their children suffered from respiratory and skin ailments. Apart from this, oil palm and fruit trees were also destroyed, after being covered in layers of dust.

According to statistics from the Kuantan Department of Health, upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) is the most common disease among Bukit Goh residents.

This figure saw a drastic drop when the federal government announced a moratorium in 2016.

On the other hand, it is estimated that the settlers of Felda Bukit Goh have to also cope with noise pollution measuring 102 decibels (dB), which can damage hearing.

The EIA report concedes that it will be difficult to prevent noise pollution for the neighbouring areas.

70 percent of respondents disagree

The main driver of the proposed mining project is PKNP, a state body that focuses on the economic and social development of Pahang’s rural area.

A public dialogue session with the stakeholders was conducted in November 2018.

Representatives of PKNP, mining operator BG Mining and several government agencies attended the session which was held at Felda Bukit Goh.

According to the report, most residents in Bukit Goh, Bukit Kuantan Felda and those living within a 500-metre radius of the project site agreed with the bauxite mining project.

However, a survey conducted by the EIA showed that those living away from the proposed site are less aware of the project. A majority of respondents felt that the project will not be beneficial and therefore disapproved of it.

The survey was based on a random sampling of 390 respondents located within a 5km radius of the project site and road users along the transport route of the bauxite material to the Kemaman Port.

The reasons provided for disapproving the project included traffic congestion and higher truck traffic intensity, impact on fishermen due to loss of fishing ground, impact on the river structure in the Kuantan area, declining environmental quality and impact on tourism providers in Kuantan.

The bauxite mining rush began in 2014, after Indonesia banned the export of bauxite to encourage the growth of its local aluminium industry.

The high demand for bauxite led to unregulated mining operators carrying out mining activities in Bukit Goh and the surrounding area.

The federal and Pahang governments jointly announced a moratorium to stop all bauxite mining activities in Kuantan until a new standard operating procedure is put in place.

Before the federal government intervened, the Pahang government encountered difficulties in enforcement and there were also cases of corruption.

The New Straits Times reported that the state government lost 80 percent of its export royalties related to Kuantan bauxite mining activities from October to December 2015.

Although illegal mining activities were severe, then menteri besar Adnan Yaakob said he did not have a definitive answer on how to deal with the problem because the miners fled when raids were carried out.

On the other hand, the MACC claimed that there were elements of corruption in the mining activities.

The MACC later arrested officers from the Pahang Land and Mines Office for receiving payments to protect illegal bauxite mines. The commission also pledged to go after the “big fish”.

Malaysiakini has also contacted PKNP for comment.

By : LOW CHOON CHYUAN – MALAYSIAKINI

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