Hornbill Unleashed

July 1, 2012

Slow death by aluminum smelters?

Filed under: Human rights,Politics — Hornbill Unleashed @ 12:01 AM
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The aluminium smelting plant. (Source: unireka.com)

Gan Pei Ling

WHILE green activists in Peninsular Malaysia are protesting the rare earth refinery that has yet to begin operations in Gebeng, Pahang, villagers living near an aluminium smelting plant in Balingian, Mukah, Sarawak, have been suffering in silence.

Documentary filmmaker and former TV2 producer Chou Z Nam has highlighted the Iban villagers’ plight in four short videos, all available on YouTube, and a report after a field visit in February 2012. Chou is well-known for his documentaries on the Bakun Dam and its impact on local communities. His Bakun Dam documentaries were axed by RTM and he was sacked after disclosing the self-censorship.

How is the aluminium smelting plant affecting the lives of local communities in Balingian? Should we be alarmed at plans for new plants?

Declining health and dying crops

In Chou’s first short video released on 22 March 2012, villager Sandy Dancan, 18, complained of skin irritation and rashes which she has had since 2010. Dancan lives 300m away from the plant owned by Press Metal Sarawak Sdn Bhd.

Another villager, Cynthia Unau, 25, worked as a cleaner at the smelter for six months in 2011. She claimed she fell sick while working there in Chou’s second video released on 24 March 2012.

A simple health survey conducted by Chou and local activist Matek Geram found that villagers from three longhouses located 300m to 2.5km from the factory reported symptoms of breathing difficulties, coughing and dizziness, among others. The affected families say they spend RM150 up to RM500 a month for medical treatment.

It was also observed that plants growing 50m to 200m from the factory including nipah, coconut, sago, banana, oil palm and ferns, were dying.

Farmers living within 12km of the smelter have claimed loss of livelihood as their crops cannot bear fruit, while fisherfolk at Batang Balingian alleged that their catch has dwindled, possibly due to acid rain pollution.

Chou’s documentary also records an unidentified former employee accusing the smelter of only using one out of its three compressors to treat air pollutants including hydrogen fluorideand sulphur dioxide in order to save energy costs. The informant claimed that although the plant was equipped with the required pollution control facility, it wasn’t fully utilised when he was working there.

Press Metal Sarawak refuted these claims in a Borneo Post report published on 8 May 2012. Its human resources general manager, Soh Siew Ong, said the smelter only released clean gas into the air and that no water is discharged from the plant.

Cynthia Unau's testimony as featured in Chou's video clip

Cynthia Unau’s testimony as featured in Chou’s video


More smelters in the pipeline

While villagers in Balingian are still grappling with the health impact of living near an aluminium plant, at least two new larger smelters are expected to be built in Bintulu.

Press Metal Bhd secured a RM350 million loan in May 2012 from two local banks to finance the construction of its second aluminium smelting plant in Bintulu’s Samalaju Industrial Park. The plant is expected to produce 240,000 tonnes of aluminium annually, double the capacity of the existing Balingian plant.

Smelter Asia, a joint venture between Gulf International Investment Group Holdings Sdn Bhd and Aluminium Corp of China, also plans to build a smelter in the same industrial park, with an even larger annual capacity of 370,000 tonnes.

Aluminium smelting involves a chemical process to extract pure aluminium from its oxide called alumina. But the process leaves behind fluoride pollutants, including the pungent and toxic hydrogen fluoride as well as perfluorocarbons (PFCs), which are far more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide.

In addition, an aluminium smelting plant is an energy guzzler as a high temperature of 970 Celsius is needed to melt the alumina. For example, while the Mukah district consumes two megawatts of electricity per month, the Balingian smelter alone uses up to 200 megawatts a month, according to Press Metal Sarawak. Smelter Asia is also in talks with Sarawak Energy Bhd to secure over 600 megawatts of power supply.

Heed the warning signs

The process of extracting aluminium is an environmental challenge. Yet, aluminium is highly sought after to make vehicles and for food packaging, and is arguably a necessity in modern life. The aluminium industry is one of the primary forces behind the Brazilian government’s plan to dam rivers in the Amazon to meet the industry’s high energy demand. Sarawak seems to be going down the same path with its grand plan to build 12 mega dams despite growing local opposition.

Unlike the case with Lynas, a detailed environmental impact assessment was done for theBalingian smelter. But given the current complaints, the government authorities need to be more proactive in addressing villagers’ complaints on health problems, pollution and dying plants. These are merely warning signs of a potentially larger underlying problem. If, as Press Metal Sarawak claims, no air pollutants have been released by its smelting plant, then what is the real source of pollution in Balingian? Shouldn’t the authorities be investigating?

As Chou recommended in his fact-finding report, a more thorough health study needs to be conducted to ascertain the cause of the villagers’ sicknesses. Rainwater and plant samples ought to be collected by the state Department of Environment to find out if they are contaminated with pollutants from the smelter.

The Balingian smelter is located Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud’s constituency. Surely he wouldn’t want an environmental and public health scandal in his own backyard.

In addition, the Sarawak government ought to rethink its development strategy. Building more smelters may indeed spur the state’s economic growth, but not at the expense of the health and quality of life of the locals, unless the companies are held to strict environmental standards.


Gan Pei Ling thinks more public attention needs to be given to the health and environmental impact of aluminium smelting plants in Sarawak. They certainly deserve equal, if not more, public scrutiny than Lynas.

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4 Comments »

  1. We are talking what we cannot do with concrete factories at 7th Mile and in Pending.
    The sultan of Sarawak is almighty.

    Comment by Stephen tang — July 1, 2012 @ 10:05 PM | Reply

  2. Environmentalist should not leave any stones unturned regarding the long term health hazard that this unwanted aluminium plant posed. They should conduct regular test on soil and rivers in Mukah and Balingian. The medical history of local residents should be compiled and recorded since the construction of the Aluminium Smelting Plant

    Exposure to a wide variety of hazardous dusts, fumes, gases and other chemicals can occur during smelting and refining operations. Crushing and grinding ore in particular can result in high exposures to silica and toxic metal dusts (e.g., containing lead, arsenic and cadmium). There can also be dust exposures during furnace maintenance operations. During smelting operations, metal fumes can be a major problem.

    Dust and fume emissions can be controlled by enclosure, automation of processes, local and dilution exhaust ventilation, wetting down of materials, reduced handling of materials and other process changes. Where these are not adequate, respiratory protection would be needed.

    Many smelting operations involve the production of large amounts of sulphur dioxide from sulphide ores and carbon monoxide from combustion processes. Dilution and local exhaust ventilation (LEV) are essential.

    Sulphuric acid is produced as a by-product of smelting operations and is used in electrolytic refining and leaching of metals. Exposure can occur both to the liquid and to sulphuric acid mists. Skin and eye protection and LEV is needed.

    The smelting and refining of some metals can have special hazards. Examples include nickel carbonyl in nickel refining, fluorides in aluminium smelting, arsenic in copper and lead smelting and refining, and mercury and cyanide exposures during gold refining. These processes require their own special precautions.
    Other hazards

    Glare and infrared radiation from furnaces and molten metal can cause eye damage including cataracts. Proper goggles and face shields should be worn. High levels of infrared radiation may also cause skin burns unless protective clothing is worn.

    High noise levels from crushing and grinding ore, gas discharge blowers and high-power electric furnaces can cause hearing loss. If the source of the noise cannot be enclosed or isolated, then hearing protectors should be worn. A hearing conservation program including audiometric testing and training should be instituted.

    Electrical hazards can occur during electrolytic processes. Precautions include proper electrical maintenance with lockout/tagout procedures; insulated gloves, clothing and tools; and ground fault circuit interrupters where needed.

    Manual lifting and handling of materials can cause back and upper extremity injuries. Mechanical lifting aids and proper training in lifting methods can reduce this problem.
    Pollution and Environmental Protection

    Emissions of irritant and corrosive gases like sulphur dioxide, hydrogen sulphide and hydrogen chloride may contribute to air pollution and cause corrosion of metals and concrete within the plant and in the surrounding environment. The tolerance of vegetation to sulphur dioxide varies depending on the type of forest and soil. In general, evergreen trees tolerate lower concentrations of sulphur dioxide than deciduous ones. Particulate emissions may contain non-specific particulates, fluorides, lead, arsenic, cadmium and many other toxic metals. Wastewater effluent may contain a variety of toxic metals, sulphuric acid and other impurities. Solid wastes can be contaminated with arsenic, lead, iron sulphides, silica and other pollutants.

    Smelter management should include evaluation and control of emissions from the plant. This is specialized work which should be carried out only by personnel thoroughly familiar with the chemical properties and toxicities of the materials discharged from the plant processes. The physical state of the material, the temperature at which it leaves the process, other materials in the gas stream and other factors must all be considered when planning measures to control air pollution. It is also desirable to maintain a weather station, to keep meteorological records and to be prepared to reduce output when weather conditions are unfavourable for dispersal of stack effluents. Field trips are necessary to observe the effect of air pollution on residential and farming areas.

    Sulphur dioxide, one of the major contaminants, is recovered as sulphuric acid when present in sufficient quantity. Otherwise, to meet emission standards, sulphur dioxide and other hazardous gaseous wastes are controlled by scrubbing. Particulate emissions are commonly controlled by fabric filters and electrostatic precipitators.

    Large amounts of water are used in flotation processes such as copper concentration. Most of this water is recycled back into the process. Tailings from the flotation process are pumped as slurry into sedimentation ponds. Water is recycled in the process. Metal-containing process water and rainwater are cleaned in water-treatment plants before discharging or recycling.

    Solid-phase wastes include slags from smelting, blowdown slurries from sulphur dioxide conversion to sulphuric acid and sludges from surface impoundments (e.g., sedimentation ponds). Some slags can be reconcentrated and returned to smelters for reprocessing or recovery of other metals present. Many of these solid-phase wastes are hazardous wastes that must be stored according to environmental regulations.

    Comment by Mata Kuching — July 1, 2012 @ 2:30 PM | Reply

  3. COME JUDGMENT DAY- WE PUT TAIB & FAMILY & CRONIES & TIMBER TYCOONS TO WORK IN THE ALUM SMELTER SO THEY CAN EXPERIENCE WHAT THE PEOPLE A SUFFERING FROM & ALSO TO REPLANT THE FORESTS

    We can bring about Judgement Day in several ways:

    1. Have a constitutional overthrow of the regime. Vote the bastards out and charge and try them all for their anti-people and economic crimes

    2. Have revolutionary overthrow

    The second choice is the least desired because of bloodshed but then some times people have to make a choice as in the Middle East, Russia (1917) China (1949), Eastern Europe (1950s) Cuba (1959) France (1789) US Independence War (1775) Haiti independence, Philippine independence etc…

    The common factor for all these revolutions was the people’s fight overthrow injustice, oppression, foreign domination and exploitation.

    Comment by ORANG2BANGKIT — July 1, 2012 @ 10:44 AM | Reply

  4. For their love of money and power,they don’t give a F@#K about the local Sarawakians.

    Comment by Lok1 — July 1, 2012 @ 1:39 AM | Reply


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