THE illegal digging for tantalum was Penang’s problem in the early years of the millennium but thanks to the vigilance of the authorities, it was short-lived.
It was especially rampant in the Datuk Keramat and Jalan Bagan Luar areas where there used to be a tin smelting industry. There were many arrests and this helped keep the illegal activity in check.
A motorcycle shop owner, who wanted to be known only as Bob, said digging for tantalum, a by-product of tin smelting, was very lucrative but it was short-lived.
“I was one of the many who illegally dug up tonnes of the slag and made a fortune out of it some 15 years ago in Taman Selat.
“The demand for tantalum, also known as oor kim (black gold) to the Chinese, was so high that agents would come in lorries to buy it from them,” he recalled.
The 29-year-old said the rush was similar to that of bauxite mining in Kuantan which came to light recently.
“There was a ‘black gold rush’ here, with hundreds of people involved in the trade in 2001. The tantalum price was about RM9 per kg at its peak and we were able to dig up to two tonnes in a day.
“Armed with just hoes and gunny sacks, we managed to fill up a small sack every five minutes. We did not even bother to stop for meals as there was so much money to be made.
“We knew it was illegal and risk being arrested by the police but the return was so good that we could even afford to hire people to be on the lookout,” he said when met in Bagan Dalam.
Bob said they never asked where the tantalum was being sent to, except that it was meant for computer parts.
Retired bus contractor T. Singaram, 66, who is staying not far from Taman Selat, said most of the diggers were drug addicts.
“They would dig at night, making holes up to waist high.
“When the police arrived, the diggers would flee,” he said.
His friend, retired lorry driver T. Retnasamy, 66, said he knew of the lucrative trade but was too afraid to be involved.
“I was afraid not only of police arrest but was also worried that the ground I was standing would collapse. They just dug everywhere.”
It was reported that in May 2001, police nabbed a large number of diggers, inclu-ding civil servants and uniformed personnel after their activity left a trail of destruction such as burst underground water pipes as well as damaged public roads, power cables and even private properties.
At its height in 2001, a group of diggers even took advantage of the festive season by using an excavator to dig up a 50m-stretch of Jalan Bagan Luar in the middle of the night.
Tragic incidents, too, happened when two men and a woman were killed in the same year when the tunnel they were digging in Jalan Allen collapsed.
The bodies of Imran Abdul Hamid, 20, Khairul Anuar Mohd Basir, 20, and Aniza Mohd Yatim, 29, were recovered several metres apart.
In November 2000, roti canai seller Abdullah Talib, 28, also died in a 1.5m-deep tunnel that he had dug in nearby Jalan Pantai.
Over on the island in 2011, there was also an incident where tantalum thieves broke into five dilapidated double-storey houses to dig up several holes in Patani Road for tantalum.
Universiti Sains Malaysia engineering Prof Datuk Eric Goh said tantalum was high in demand for its vast usage due to its high melting point, high conductivity and also because it was ductile.
He added that tantalum was a hard and rare metallic element mostly used in the electronics, electrical, automobile and medical industries.
It is used mainly in the production of electronic components commonly found in mobile phones, digital cameras, video cameras and laptop computers.