The river turns blood-red as miners dig craters nearby and drive truckloads of bauxite ore, littering the surrounding highways as crimson dust engulfs everything in its path.
“Bauxite mining has brought a tremendous amount of dust to the entire town until they dubbed it as the Town on Mars,” a resident of Kuantan, Malaysia, said.
Bauxite mining companies are applying for licenses near Kuantan, the capital of Pahang state, and tensions between miners and locals have erupted over environmental destruction and a devastating health toll resulting from the operations. Yet some landowners see bauxite mining as a lucrative avenue out of poverty and forgo basic necessities such as water and food security as they sell their properties to bauxite miners.
Since 2015, bauxite mining has been perceived as a profitable emerging industry among rural Malaysian towns. The country exported up to 3.5 million tonnes of bauxite ore to China before the Malaysian government issued a moratorium in 2016, which was subsequently lifted in November 2019.
The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission seized about 10 million tonnes of bauxite in August 2017. The commission estimated the stockpile to be worth $306 million.
The socioeconomic impacts of bauxite mining in Kuantan are among the concerns expressed by observers. Bauxite is not renewable and can be taken out once. Excavated land tends to be harder to rehabilitate and oil palm trees have been removed, eliminating long-term sources of income.
A 2016 study of the potential health impacts of bauxite mining described severe pollution in Kuantan among the long-term ramifications. Diseases and a lack of rehabilitation opportunities are also potential results of unregulated bauxite mining.
The Kuantan resident, who asked to remain unnamed for fear of harassment, is one of many who have lived there since the booming bauxite mining period of 2015-2016, when haphazard aluminum ore extraction by 44 companies resulted in widespread water and air pollution.
“I have friends staying nearby, which happened to be near the bauxite excavation,” the Kuantan resident said. “My friend complained about her kitchen [being] actually covered with a layer of red dust.”
At the time, many residents did not have access to clean drinking water due to a lack of mining regulations that would prevent bauxite dust contamination.
“Everyone was going after the money you could get from bauxite mining,” the resident said.
An estimated four to six bauxite mines are now seeking permits to reopen in Bukit Goh, a village near Kuantan. If approved, more than 3,642 hectares of land (9,000 acres) will be mined for bauxite among historic land settlements owned by rural, agricultural Malay communities.
Member of Parliament Fuziah Salleh said that when the 2016 moratorium was issued, mines were abandoned and “left deep craters all over the Felda settlement areas.”
“So now, they couldn’t rehabilitate the land because nobody was willing to do that. The miners left,” Salleh said. “When they left, there was nothing in the agreement that said they had to rehabilitate the land.”
While the moratorium was implemented after 2016, not much of the original land was rehabilitated and could no longer be utilised for agricultural purposes.
Mechanical and material engineering professor Kuan Seng How has written about bauxite mining standard operation procedures, explaining that exporting tonnes of extracted aluminum produced red dust and mud and subsequent water contamination.
The results of a study on bauxite mining and respiratory disease health risks published in the Malaysian Journal of Medicine and Health Sciences in December 2020 found Kuantan residents complained of asthma, dry coughs and skin rashes resulting from exposure to bauxite dust over six months.
“Most of the truck drivers are from outside. The lorry drivers are from other parts like Johor and Perak. They don’t really feel for the people of Kuantan. It’s just a job for them,” said Noor Jehan Abu Bakar, chair of the Pahang branch of the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS).
Jehan said vendors sold food covered with bauxite dust to labourers with limited meal options. The long-term impacts of eating food tainted with bauxite dust remain unclear.
Salleh explained that the Semambu Water Treatment Plant in Kuantan, southeast of Bukit Goh beyond a 5-kilometre radius of proposed bauxite mine locations, does not filter heavy metals while supplying water to more than 700,000 households.
“Normal people will not be able to trace what is inside the water. There’s no guarantee the heavy metals will not get into our drinking water,” said Salleh, who worked with scientists from the regional branch of MNS Pahang to evaluate Kuantan’s water quality in 2015.
Bauxite dust also displaced monkeys from Bukit Goh’s oil palm plantations, which encompasses nearly 69% of the community’s land area. The animals have fled to residential areas, Jehan said.
“When plantations started to be cleared for bauxite mining, they moved to where they can find food,” Jehan said. “Residential areas and dustbins are the next targets. Monkeys start to steal food from our houses, especially those who have wet kitchens. Monkeys will then take their potatoes and foodstuff, sometimes they eat or mess it up.”
Perbadanan Kemajuan Negeri Pahang (PKNP) Mineral Industries, which says it is focused on projects improving the wellbeing of Pahang’s rural areas, contracted with BG Mining for access to its bauxite mines in Bukit Goh.
PKNP Mineral Industries hired environmental consultancy firm Kenep Consultancy to conduct an environmental impact assessment (EIA) on the operations. Published in June, Kenep reported BG Mining has applied to reopen four to six bauxite mines.
The EIA says the village of Padang Perdana lies 20 metres south of the proposed mines in Bukit Goh and predicts the flow of bauxite runoff is expected to affect the water quality of houses near three rivers: Sungai Riau, Sungai Mabuk and Sungai Kuantan.
“You can imagine the leaching from Bukit Goh eventually gets into the river and into our water sources,” Salleh said. “We found out it contained lead and other metals. Arsenic, mercury – it was so frightening.”
Yet there was not widespread awareness of the environmental impact assessment among residents of Bukit Goh. Many residents are older and lack stable internet access to view the report, according to Fuziah and Jehan.
There was no federal or state government oversight of bauxite mining in 2015 and 2016. Companies needed to get the consent of landowners to mine but did not previously conduct environmental assessments because they were not required for plots smaller than 250 hectares (2.5 square kilometres or 0.96 square miles.) The regulations now in place require an EIA and other standard practices such as rehabilitating the land after digging all the bauxite ore out of a plot.
“Before we can commence mining operations, we have to do the environmental impact assessment report first. When we get approval from the EIA report, we start mining,” a PKNP spokesperson said.
Companies now must apply for mining permits and conduct environmental assessments before beginning bauxite mining operations. Bukit Goh’s EIA listed several solutions for mitigating environmental damage such as addressing the safe transportation of bauxite ore in bulk containers and scheduled waste disposal areas.
The spokesperson, who asked to withhold their name for fear of retribution from members of the public, said permit applications have been submitted for two bauxite mines, while the company will consider possibly opening three additional mines within Bukit Goh. For now, the company is waiting for the state government to review the environmental assessment.
“For bauxite in Pahang, in Bukit Goh, we haven’t operated yet. We are waiting for approval of [the] EIA report,” the spokesperson said, noting that the company will mitigate the environmental impact by following safety protocols outlined in the assessment’s recommended standard operating procedures.
Jehan and Salleh said consistent government inspections and a holistic reconsideration of environmental impact assessments before proceeding with the reopening of Bukit Goh’s bauxite mines could mitigate the impact.
Yet they fear reopening the bauxite mines without consistent application of standard operating procedures would unleash widespread health and environmental repercussions in Kuantan.
Jehan noted that many of Kuantan’s residents are among the bottom 40% of Malaysia’s income earners who drink and fish in the river water that has been stained red by the mines.
“What other choice do we have? Especially for the people from lower-income classes,” she said. “Can they go to the supermarket and buy fish somewhere else?”