APRIL 1994 - VOLUME 15 - NUMBER 4
M A L A Y S I A
Sabah's Mining Menace
by Robert Weissman
RANAU, SABAH, MALAYSIA - "Take nothing but photographs. Leave nothing but footprints," read the signs posted throughout the famous Poring Hots Spring park area, in the Malaysian state of Sabah, on the island of Borneo.
"Do not bathe in this river; it would he hazardous to your health," reads another sign in the middle of the Hot Springs area, by the Mamut River.
Assistant Park Ranger James Radani explains that the park rangers posted the "Do Not Bathe" sign because the river is dangerously polluted. The Mamut Copper Mining (MCM) Co., which operates Malaysia's largest mine high in the mountains from which the Mamut flows, has left more than footprints in the park.
Every time the copper company releases waste water from the aeration pond near its upstream mine, according to Radani, "everyone in the area recognizes the foul smell." The river no longer supports the fish it once did, and plants on the river banks are yellow and stunted-all changes, according to Radani, that can be traced to the operation of the mine.
It is not only park rangers who complain about the environmental and health effects of the Mamut Copper Mine's operations. Indigenous residents in 17 villages throughout the Lohan area near Ranau charge that the mine has hurt the fertility of their land, polluted their rivers and water supplies and endangered their health.
Making money, making waste
The mine operator, MCM, is owned by Mega First Corporation, a Malaysian company. The Sabah state government is a major stockholder of the Mega First Corporation, maintaining an approximately 10 percent stake in the company.
Although the company is Malaysian owned, Japanese companies have played a key role in its operations since its inception. A consortium of Japanese mining and smelting companies, grouped together as the Overseas Mineral Resources Development Co., gained exploration rights in the mine area in the mid-1960x. In 1969, the Japanese companies entered into a joint venture with Malawian investors to establish the Overseas Mineral Resources Development Sabah Co. After a half decade of exploration and construction work, mining began at the Mamut Copper Mine. The company was restructured in the mid-1980s and ownership was transferred to Malaysian investors, but all of its mineral extract is still shipped to smelters in Japan.
The massive Mamut Copper Mine is located on the flank of majestic Mt. Kinabulu, the highest peak in Southeast Asia, about a mile above sea level. From a milc wide pit on the side of the mountain, MCM extracts 30 million tons of earth every year; this effort yields about 25,000 tons of copper, 2 tons of gold and 12.5 tons of silver.
MCM ships only about 120,000 tons of mineral concentrate to Japan annually, which means that the mine operators must dispose of almost all of the 30 million tons of mined earth.
After crushing the ore and sending it through a series of mills, the minerals are separated from earth in flotation cells. The separated waste, or tailings, is then piped to a huge tailings pond nine miles from and more than a half-mile below the mine. In the tailings pond, sand, waste and water are separated; the sand is used to build up the giant walls of the pond, the water is dispensed into the Lohan River and the waste is left in the center of the pond.
To regulate the flow of the tailings and prevent them from overwhelming the pipe system, the waste is routed through a series of what are called open-drop tanks. MCM installed the open-drop tank system after the pressure of gushing tailings overwhelmed its previous pipeline system. In 1978, the pipe system burst, spraying wastes over hundreds of hectares of agricultural land. In the wake of the 1978 disaster, the company agreed to pay the government $5 million as a "once-and-for-all payment" to cover the costs of moving hundreds or thousands (the number is now in dispute) of farmers. MCM still claims that the $5 million was not compensation, but a "contribution" for those it was thought might be better off living further from the mine.
The money was not dispensed as a lump sum, but over the course of an entire decade. Many farmers did eventually receive the money, but they were never relocated. Those farmers who did receive payments came to view the money as annual compensation for the damage to their health and livelihood caused by the mine.
When the fund, which was originally supposed to cover one-time relocation costs, dried up in 1988, the farmers were outraged. They and other farmers in the Ranau area have organized and demanded additional compensation from the company, charging that pollution from the mine is an ongoing nuisance.
Since 1988, in sporadic rallies involving hundreds of local people - a massive grouping given the farmers' geographical dispersion and lack of transportation, as well as the cultural inhibitions against public demonstrations - the farmers have demanded upwards of $20 million in compensation. The company has flat out refused to pay additional compensation, asserting that its previous $5 million was intended to cover past, present and future damages.
The cost of copper
The notion that a one-time, past payment covers harms that they are experiencing on an ongoing basis makes little sense to the thousands of residents of the 17 villages near the mine. Especially for those who do not have a family member working at the mine, the mine has made life significantly harder and brought little benefits to compensate. Even for those who do have family members employed at the mine, the costs of the mine are substantial.
A variety of effluents from the mine have contaminated the area's three rivers and its tributaries. One of the rivers, the Lohan, is considered biologically dead, and the other two, the Mamut and Bambangan, are heavily polluted. This river pollution has affected local peoples' drinking water supplies and diet. Villagers used to go to the rivers for their drinking water, but now must rely on a government-installed pipe system to bring them clean water from mountain streams. Many residents doubt whether the piped-in water is clean, however, fearing that it too is contaminated by the mining operations; and the state government has been unwilling to guarantee that the piped-in water is safe to drink.
Moreover, the pipe system is poorly maintained, and residents often need to seek alternative water supplies. The head of one local village explains that in his village and elsewhere people often catch rainwater and use that for drinking. The problem for villagers who live in relatively close proximity to the tailings pond is that their roofs are often covered with dust and sand which has blown from the pond - and therefore the rainwater they collect is as contaminated and dirty as the river. Other villagers rely on wells, but they fear the well wateris unsafe as well.
The pollution has devastated fishing. Before the mine started up, "we were able to get a lot of fish from the Lohan River," says one woman, but now the people in the area have to buy their fish from the market.
The contaminated rivers and blowing dust have also combined to undermine agricultural production, with people throughout the Lohan area voicing similar complaints about declining agricultural yields. Many families have given up on cultivating rice paddies, because they don't want to irrigate their fields with contaminated river water. Those who still are cultivating paddies, says the village headman, are finding that "their crops don't grow well and are not healthy."
Even growing vegetables has proved to be a problem for many. The contaminated rivers have hurt production along their banks, but the worst problem is dust and sand which blows from the tailings dam. One man who serves on a Native court says, "the land is covered from dust from the dam, so even grass has trouble growing." He adds, "when we try to plant vegetables, we find the leaves of the vegetables turn yellow and the plants are not healthy."
"If we take our vegetables to Ranau, people in the town ask where the vegetables came from; and if we tell them they come from Our village near the dam, they won't buy them," says the village headman. His story 11 echoed by a woman who notes that MCMs recent practice of watering down the sides of the tailings dam has only partially lessened the dust problem.
It seems almost certain that pollutants which are having such a severe effect on rivers, the land and plant life are endangering human health too. Villagers blame a range of ailments - from colds and coughs to rashes to a high incidence of leukemia on pollution from the mine. According to the Native court judge, when people from the Lohan area go to the hospital with a medical problem, the hospital staff says, "it is no Surprise" when they are told where their patients live. Health problems are particularly acute during the dry season, when strong winds seem to enfold the whole area, says the village headman.
Despite the villagers' complaints, there has been little Study of the environmental and health impact of MCM's operations. The precise level of contamination of local rivers caused by the mining is still unknown. Researchers from the University of Malaysia in Sabah, however, have investigated the extent to which local peoples have been contaminated with heavy metals. Although he cautions that his conclusions cannot be viewed as definitive because of the lack of baseline, pre-mining tests, Dr. Murtedza Mohamed has told the Malaysian press that a series of seven studies has demonstrated that the area rivers, as well as larger rivers which they feed into, exhibit high levels of heavy metal contamination. One Study, completed in the late 1980s, compared hair samples from villagers living near the Mamut Copper Mine with those from residents of the nearby city of Kota Knabulu. The study found that the lead content in the villagers' hair was twelve times higher than that of the Kota Kinabulu residents.
MCM denies that its operations are polluting the local area or endangering residents' health. Former Mine Manager Roy Basham told the Malaysian press in 1990 that "it is stretching things a bit to say that the [poor air quality caused by the mine's operations] lead[s] to bronchial diseases. Hair salons too have industrial hazards." MCM's position has been that the metallic content of local water supplies is naturally elevated due to the high mineral content in the mountains.
A bleak future
Although MCM had previously estimated that its mining operations Would shut down in the early 1990s, it now plans to continue operating until at least the turn of the century. Barring a fundamental change in company operating policy, all of the environmental and health hazards created by the mine are likely to be in tensified over the next decade.
It seems unlikely that the local population will be able to force any change on the company. Organizing efforts face a myriad of obstacles. As the chair of a Village Development and Security Commission points out, "it is hard for the people to criticize the company because it is partially state owned, and because the company is the biggest in Ranau. ... The little villages are easily intimidated." Organizing is also obstructed by the difficulties associated with intervillage communication and transportation. "To be effective, we have to be united," lie says, "but it is hard for us to unite because there is hardly any communication between the villages."
Even if the villagers were able to win their demands for compensation and potentially for resettlement, that Would be little solace for those whose lives have already been irrevocably harmed.
"I have already been contaminated," says a woman who lives across the road from the MCM tailings pond, "so even if they resettle us, I will carry the contamination with me for the rest of my life."
But not receiving any compensation would be even worse. Asked what her family will do if they do not receive compensation and are not resettled, the woman sighs and replies that the question presents an intractable dilemma. "If we stay, we will have to deal with a place full of pollution; if we go, we will have to move to another place, where they will have to start from scratch and where life will be very difficult.