On 8 March 2011, a New York Times article revealed construction of a world-scale rare earth (RE) refinery project in an industrial estate in Gebeng, near the Port of Kuantan, Malaysia. The refinery is owned by Australia’s Lynas Corporation, which owns and operates a mine and concentration plant in Mt Weld (Western Australia, WA)— 800km from WA’s capital, Perth — shipping the ore concentrate 2,899 nautical miles (5,370 km) from Fremantle Port to the Kuantan plant for extraction and processing into RE oxides.
Lynas is the only RE company with a refinery plant in a Global South country separate from its ore mine.
In 1992, the WA government granted Lynas’s predecessor Ashton Rare Earth Limited conditional approval for a processing plant in Meenaar industrial estate 100km from Perth . Environmental Protection Authority of Western Australia approval stipulated numerous social and environmental conditions . Mt Weld and Meenaar are ideal mining and refining sites —sparsely populated semi-arid lands with underground aquifers capable of supplying amber water. Choosing, instead, a Malaysian site, Lynas could avoid the stringent Meenaar conditions set by the WA government. Today, the refinery is about 2 km from a residential population of 30,000 and 700,000 people live within a 25 km radius (including Kuantan city with over 400,000). Malaysia’s last RE refinery, Asian Rare Earth (ARE) in neighbouring state of Perak, left a toxic legacy involving Asia’s biggest RE clean-up effort costing $100 million . Partly owned and operated by Japan’s Mitsubishi Chemical in the industrial town Bukit Merah, nearby villagers and workers experienced miscarriages, birth defects and unusually high incidence of childhood leukaemia due to poor management of toxic and radioactive wastes, lack of occupational and public health and safety measures, and government inaction despite independent scientific evidence of dangers. ARE closed down in 1992 after 10 years of operation and strong popular actions and protests .
A peat mangrove  — theoretically protected by law  — sits adjacent to the Lynas refinery. The Lynas refinery went ahead without public knowledge, consultation or impact assessment on the peatland, its biologically rich estuary and floodplains, and the marine and coastal ecosystems of the South China Sea, just 5 km from the refinery . Pitched as a ‘green’ supplier of materials for low-emission technologies vital to tackling climate change, it is ironic that Lynas has located its refinery in this rich tropical peatland, which stores huge amount of carbon dioxide emitted whenever burnt in the drought season, exposed or disturbed. Instead, this landscape should be protected for mitigating climate change and offering adaptive ecosystem services to local communities  .
Malaysia’s biggest ever environmental campaign  — described as the country’s “most far reaching experience with a popular environmental resistance”  — evolved as local, Australian and international environmentalists became alarmed by the secrecy surrounding the refinery, the fast-tracked approval, a 12-year tax break granted Lynas as a Malaysian government foreign direct investment incentive, the vulnerable social and ecological environment in which the refinery had been placed and prior experience of tragedies with Bukit Merah .