James Hookway/The Wall Street Journal Tan Bun Teet, center, at the Palace of Justice in December
Mining Firm, Ex-Teacher Battle Over Rare Earths
By JAMES HOOKWAY
Wall Street Journal
February 18, 2013
In the Internet era, even a 64-year-old retired math teacher can become a threat to a large company.
That, at least, is the experience of Lynas Corp. LYC.AU +0.82% For over a year, the Australian rare-earths mining company has come under fire from Tan Bun Teet and his band of tech-savvy campaigners on Malaysia's South China Sea coast.
The group, called Save Malaysia Stop Lynas, has disrupted Lynas's plans to open a refinery with a nimble, Internet-based campaign, drawing nationwide support through regularly updated blogs, Twitter feeds and a Facebook page. In a recent interview, Chief Executive Officer Nick Curtis said Lynas underestimated the extent to which the protesters had enlisted the organizing power of the Web, forcing the company to delay the opening of the plant until this past November, a full year behind schedule, and to raise money it didn't initially plan for.
Sydney-based Lynas, which is listed on the Australian Securities Exchange with a market value of 1.2 billion Australian dollars ($1.24 billion) appeared to be onto a winner when it broke ground for a new plant in Kuantan nearly five years ago. Global demand for materials such as lanthanum and neodymium was surging as the world's appetite for hybrid cars, wind turbines and ever-faster phones with better screens increased.
The prospect of weakening China's chokehold on 95% of the world trade in these critical elements helped convince Malaysia's government that the project would be a success. It offered the firm a 12-year tax holiday to set up shop in Pahang, the home state of Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Instead, construction of the $800 million Lynas refinery kicked off a debate with local residents about how to handle the low-grade radioactive waste that comes from processing rare-earth elements. The company and the Malaysian government say the plant is safe.
The clash is also now spilling over into national politics, as opposition firebrand Anwar Ibrahim incorporates the cause in his bid to topple the coalition that has governed this predominantly Muslim nation since independence from Britain in 1957. Elections are expected to be called this spring.
"If we can't challenge the government in the courts, then perhaps the election will change the game," says Mr. Tan, a wiry, methodical 64-year-old.
Rare earths are a group of 17 elements valued for their magnetic and conductive properties. While harmless by themselves, they are frequently found mixed with potentially dangerous radioactive ores such as thorium. Separating and refining them can be complex and messy.
That has raised alarm among Malaysians who fear the government hasn't done enough to ensure the safety of the Lynas plant. "We can't trust them to do what's right," said Yu Siew Hong, a young mother who lives near the new facility...
Mr. Tan, who serves as Save Malaysia Stop Lynas's spokesman, isn't your common variety of eco-warrior...
Their emergence is part of a trend of smaller and smaller groups targeting corporations and markets, rather than governments, to achieve their goals, sometimes with spectacular effects...
"Refining rare earths is a dirty business and we want people to know what it involves...
Lynas says it intends to process the radioactive waste into other materials, such as road surfacing, diluting it. The company plans to export the material to comply with Malaysia's requirements...