Teoh El Sen August 19,2011
Mining giant Vale fails to allay fears of ecological damage and effects on the income and health of locals.
PETALING JAYA: Mining giant Vale International has failed to impress its critics with assurances that its proposed iron ore plant in Manjung will be safe to the environment and will benefit local residents.
A FMT survey found that activists and locals are still overwhelmingly against the project, although it has the eager support of the state government.
In a recent public relations exercise, Vale made a lengthy statement about the mega project’s friendliness to the environment and gave a glowing projection about the economic benefits it would bring to Perak as well as the local community.
However, critics remain unconvinced. Their attitude is summed up by a sceptic’s statement that the plant, which will occupy a 450-acre site at Teluk Rubiah, would help feed only “human greed”.
The locals, most of whom are fishermen, remain worried about the plant’s effect on their livelihood and, worse, their health.
Consumer and environmental groups have consistently voiced opposition against the project. They say that the physical facilities as well as the operations of the plant would destabilise the ecosystem of the area, formerly gazetted as a forest reserve.
Concerns have also been raised that the local tourism industry would take a blow from which it might not recover.
Meor Razak Meor Abdul Rahman (in red), secretary of the Perak Environmental Association, said the state government committed a crime when it “went against all the laws of the land” to convert the affected land from tourism use to industrial use.
He said this went directly against the vision and objectives of the Manjung District Local Plan covering the period from 2002 to 2015. The state government did not hide its eagerness to go ahead with the project, bulldozing its decision against strong objections from residents during a public hearing just four days prior to the re-zoning in February 2010, he added.
“The folk here worked hard to develop a beachside tourism industry and suddenly you change it,” he said. “What’s going to happen to Teluk Batik and the traders there?
“Until today, the state government has not dared to answer us. Why did they do this re-zoning? If there’s no profit, then we don’t need to follow laws? We might as well be lawless.”
The area was gazetted as Environmentally Sensitive Area Class II under the National Physical Plan. This means, according to Meor Razak, it is suitable only for eco-tourism and should have not host any physical development, much less a large factory.
“Class I means you can’t have any development whatsoever, Class II means there should be very little, if any, development, and only Class III means you can you have development.”
Endangering the ecosystem
The re-zoning and the approval of the project went against a slew of government policies, such as the National Environment Policy, National Forest Policy and the National Physical Plan, he said.
Even if the area was gazetted for industrial use, he added, it was not suited for heavy industry.
Vale, when asked regarding these issues, said it was unaware of them, adding that it was in no position to comment on government policies.
The area is rich in varieties of flora and fauna, and Meor Razak said the project would endanger the jungle and its inhabitants.
“The Perak Department of Wildlife and National Parks also assessed that the project area is rich in various fauna and flora, with many protected under the Wildlife Protection Act 1972.”
He said he had found leopards, white belied eagles and the endangered palm plant pheonix paladosa within the area.
“There are protected species of animals in the forest. But their environmental impact assessment (EIA) report conveniently does not talk about the endangered species they would displace.” complained Meor.
Agreeing with Meor Razak, Consumer Association of Penang (CAP) research officer S Mageswari said Vale had not fully addressed the concern that the project would gravely disrupt the entire ecosystem.
She added: “Vale tells us they have their procedures to reduce pollution, but how do you prove it? Have you given us concrete examples of how you’re going to safeguard the environment? At the time being, no.
“It is a concern that what they are doing will disrupt the environment, the fisheries and the birds. For them it is nothing, but we think this is a crime against nature.”
Mageswari noted that the environmental impact assessment (EIA) of the project mentioned that there would be negative impacts if there were no proper mitigation measures.
“Whatever it is they say, whatever mitigation measures they promise, it’s not good enough. We are against the project.
“Why do they need to come here? Why can’t they find another location that is better suited for something like that?
“They claim there would be no problems but these ships that are coming in are very huge vessels. Their movements would definitely affect the fisheries and coral reef.
“We are not convinced and assured. What are they going to do about the dust pollution, the health hazards to nearby residents. The dust, which will have sulphur oxide, nitrogen oxides in it, affects the respiratory system.”
Mageswari is also concerned about the dredging that Vale would need to undertake to build its jetty. She said the company had merely told her a separate environmental impact assessment needed to be conducted.
She said tourism in the area faced instant demise. The popular Teluk Batik beach is just 500m away from the site of the plant. Pangkor is just 5km away.
“Property value will drop drastically. People are already talking about selling their houses to go away.”
Not in the public interest
Another concern, said Mageswari, was that Vale could one day decide to expand its factory and cut down the trees that are now supposed to surround the plant as a “buffer zone”.
Also affected by the project is the Outward Bound School (OBS) in Lumut, the oldest such centre outside the UK. It has now lost the parts of the forest it once used for training.
Furthermore, OBS is not the only institution that has used the jungles in the area for training. The sites are also popular with other educational and training institutions as well as youth organisations and the navy. The government has also used them in National Service field training.
“Now there’s a sign board there that prohibits those from the OBS from going in,” said Perak Consumer Association president Rahman Said Alli. “Every time they go in, they need permission. We feel this project is no longer in the public interest.”
Rahman said several groups, including Friends of the Earth, the Perak Environmental Association and the Perak and Penang consumer associations had demanded that Vale relinquish ownership of the outer parts of the project area, which it was using as buffer zone, to the state government.
“Vale is not doing anything with the jungle land,” he said. “Why not give it back to the government? Do it as your CSR. The Forestry Department would manage it better.
“It’s a win-win situation for all. If Vale can’t even sacrifice a little to do this, we won’t agree to talk anymore.”
Vale said the proposal was being studied but admitted it was not something that could be done easily.
“Vale has an excellent track record in managing the balance between development and environmental responsibility and our credentials certainly make us fit to manage the area,” said a spokesman for the company. “We employ thousands of environmental specialists and managers globally to ensure that sustainability is priority and that commitment is certainly in place for Teluk Rubiah as well.”
“I’m not sure what are the risks. Surely there’s a lot of dust from the project that would go into my house. I don’t really understand, some people say they called it off. I’m not sure what’s happening.”
A 52-year-old fisherman who requested anonymity
“The people here all know what is happening. There was even a prayer session so that this project wouldn’t happen. If there’s no problem and no danger, we don’t mind. But the problem is that many of our fishermen just shut up after they were paid money.”
Abdan Ismail, 66, businessman
“I’m sure there will be dust and all. If the forest is cut down, then maybe it will be worse. Surely, there is some impact to us because the trees would stop the pollution from coming. But all these things are not up to us to decide. There are a lot of development projects that are stalled because the plans were suddenly changed for the factory. If our lungs are affected, then how?”
Ahmad Zaid, former village chief of Kampung Pasir Panjang
“I was told they met all groups and promised fishermen RM25,000 in cash and RM25,000 in shares. But the members of the Village Security and Development Committee were unaware when I asked.
“Vale said there is no pollution and no effect to the surrounding areas, but I am sure it will affect the fishermen and will pollute the sea.
“Everything Vale is saying is all promises. We don’t believe them. It looks like just a ploy to woo the fishermen. I say: don’t buy that and take the risk.
“If possible, keep the place as it is. Leave it. It has always been a place for tourism. We are not allowed to go in and negotiate for what he want. You know who sold the land, right? It’s hard for us to bring this up. I brought this to the Perak government’s attention, but an officer said, ‘What is this? This isn’t even a national issue.’”Also read:
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