It's a sweltering late February afternoon when I pull into the Esso gas station in the tiny town of Bukit Merah, Malaysia. My guide, a local butcher named Hew Yun Tat, warns me that the owner is known for his stinginess. "He's going to ask you to buy him tea," Hew says. "Even though he owns many businesses around here, he still can't resist pinching pennies."
An older man emerges from the station office. His face and hands are mottled with white patches, his English broken.
"I'll talk to you," the man says, "but only if you buy me tea." He grins.
"You should be ashamed of yourself," says Hew, laughing. "A rich man like you."
At a bustling open-air café nearby, we order tea and ais kacang, giant shaved-ice desserts laden with chopped-up jello and sweet, sticky red beans. I dig in, but the station owner—I'll call him Esso Man, since he doesn't want me to use his real name—is moodily stirring his into a slushy puddle. We're here to ask him about something he doesn't like to talk about: a job he did 30 years ago, when he owned a trucking company. He got a contract with a local industrial plant called Asian Rare Earth, co-owned by Mitsubishi Chemical, that supplied special minerals to the personal electronics industry.
Esso Man couldn't believe his luck. He wasn't a rich man back then, and Asian Rare Earth offered three times as much as his usual gigs, just for trucking waste away from the plant. They didn't say where or how to dump the waste, and he and his three drivers were paid by the load—the quicker the trip, the more money they earned. "Sometimes they would tell us it was fertilizer, so we would take it to local farms," Esso Man says. "My uncle was a vegetable farmer, so I gave some to him." Other times, the refinery officials said the stuff was quicklime, so one driver painted his house with it. "He thought it was great, because it made all the mosquitoes and mice stay away."
In fact, Esso Man and his drivers were hauling toxic and radioactive waste, as they'd discover a year later, when Asian Rare Earth tried to build a dump in a neighboring town. Residents there began to protest, and a few activists took a Geiger counter to the plant, where they found levels of radiation that were off the charts—up to 88 times higher than those allowed under international guidelines. In 1985, after residents sued, the government ordered the plant to be closed until Asian Rare Earth cleaned up its mess.
Two years later, the site still wasn't completely clean, but Asian Rare Earth got permission to reopen the plant. The protests began anew, and Hew, one of the leaders of the opposition, was jailed for two months. When he got out he snuck back to the protests, which grew in size and popularity. In 1992, the residents who'd sued Asian Rare Earth won a permanent injunction against the plant. It was overturned by the Supreme Court, but Asian Rare Earth had had enough, and it pulled out of Bukit Merah and shut down operations entirely.
But by then, Hew says, the villagers were anxious. Pregnant women living near the plant had miscarried; some gave birth to children who were sickly, or mentally disabled, or blind. Other children in the village developed leukemia.
Officials told residents that the waste was properly disposed of. But in 2010, a local paper visited Asian Rare Earth's dump site and found 80,000 drums containing 4.2 million gallons of radioactive thorium hydroxide. That year, Mitsubishi broke ground on a secure, underground storage area to properly house the waste of its former subsidiary. The New York Times recently called the $100 million Asian Rare Earth recovery "the largest radiation cleanup yet in the rare earth industry."
(The images in the slideshow below, from the awesome PeriodicTable.com, are used by permission.)
As we finish our dessert, I ask Esso Man about the white patches on his skin, which started appearing several years after he'd worked with Asian Rare Earth's waste. His doctors speculate they might have to do with his exposure to radioactivity, he says, but they can't be sure. Such medical guesswork is common in Bukit Merah, since no one has ever formally studied the impact of radiation exposure among the village's 11,000 residents. (Mitsubishi denies any health effects.) And anyway, sometimes Esso Man thinks it might just be stress that's causing his skin condition. "I feel regret about working for that company," he says glumly. "I feel bad that I gave people all that toxic waste. Even my own uncle." All of Esso Man's drivers have died young—not one lived past his 50s. "I don't know why they died and I am still alive."
After we drop Esso Man back at his gas station, Hew takes me to the nearby home of Lai Kwan, a local woman who worked as a bricklayer at the Bukit Merah plant while she was pregnant in 1982. Hunched over and walking slowly, she looks older than her 69 years. In her modest living room, photos of her eight children, now grown, line the walls. In the corner is a small cluster of flowers and vials of powder that I take for a Buddhist shrine, but Lai Kwan explains that they are gifts from her friends and neighbors, and that the vials contain chicken essence, known in Chinese medicine for its healing properties.
Lai Kwan recalls that soon after she started working in the plant, she heard rumors from the Japanese workers that the materials they were refining were dangerous. Several of her coworkers miscarried, and when she found out she was pregnant, she worried about her baby's health. So a few months later, she quit. Her son, Cheah Kok Liang, was born in 1983, profoundly retarded and nearly blind. Lai Kwan's husband left when the boy was a toddler. Now 29, Cheah still lives at home and requires full-time care. He's suffered from frequent chest infections his whole life, but it's hard to tell when he's getting ill, since he can't communicate. I ask to meet him, but Lai Kwan explains that he is sleeping. "If he were awake right now, I couldn't be talking to you."
What will happen to Cheah when she can't care for him anymore? "It's getting harder now," she says. "He's heavy, and I have arthritis." Money is tight—since Lai Kwan can't read or write very well, she'd only be able to find work at a factory, and she can't leave Cheah alone for a whole shift. A few months ago, a local politician visited and promised to help, but "every time I call she says she is too busy," says Lai Kwan, showing us a picture of the politician and her son in the local newspaper.
A doctor from Kuala Lumpur tells me that he visited Bukit Merah to treat the eight children there who developed leukemia, seven of whom have died. Though there has never been a formal epidemiological study of the area, radiation exposure is a known cause of childhood leukemia, and no local I talked to could remember a single case of the disease before the plant opened.
About six weeks after I get back to the United States, I receive word that Cheah passed away suddenly. The cause of his death is still unknown.
The new plant's waste toxic wastewater will be treated and released into the productive fishing grounds of the South China Sea.
I HAVE COME TO MALAYSIA because of my iPhone. I already knew that behind its sleek casing lurked a problematic history. I'd read the stories about Apple's Chinese factories—about teenage girls working 15-hour shifts cleaning screens with toxic solvents, about suicides among exhausted workers whose lives are no longer their own. But I had a much dimmer idea of my phone's history before the Foxconn plant—where did those components they put together come from? What were its guts made of? My phone's shady past, it turned out, began long before it was assembled in a Chinese factory. The elements used to power all our high-tech gadgets come from a very dirty industry in which rich nations extract the good stuff from the earth—and leave poor countries to clean up the mess.
"Never again" is a common refrain among Bukit Merah residents who have lived through 20 years of Asian Rare Earth aftermath. But the Malaysian government doesn't agree. In 2008, it approved an Australian company's plan to build a brand new rare-earth refinery on the country's east coast. The company, Lynas Corporation, will do its mining in Australia, but it will refine the rare earths—a process that generates vast quantities of toxic and radioactive waste—in Kuantan, Malaysia, a sleepy coastal city in a state where the average resident makes $7,314 a year. When completed, the plant will be the largest of its kind, meeting a full fifth of the world's rare-earth demand. Its waste will not be permanently stored in an underground facility. Instead, toxic wastewater will be treated and released into the productive fishing grounds of the South China Sea, home to more than 3,300 species of fish. As for the plans for the radioactive solids? Well, they remind people all too much of what happened in the days of Esso Man.
To the Malaysian government, the Lynas plant represents an opportunity to become a major player in one of the most lucrative, fastest-growing industries in the world. In the 20 years since the Bukit Merah plant closed, demand for rare earths has increased tenfold, from roughly $1 billion to $10 billion today. A recent report predicted it to grow another 36 percent by 2015.