MANY Malaysians were shocked to see photos of Kuantan shrouded in red dust that went viral at the end of last year.
Roads, houses, furniture, rivers, and even the seawater had turned red from bauxite dust and sediment.
"The mines are nothing more than gaping holes in the ground. Like a landfill in reverse, left empty and waiting for garbage," described a friend and colleague Qishin Tariq, who is based in Kuantan.
"The soil is a deep red, it is laterite. But as it falls on the roads, it's lighter brown. Even the roofs and palm leaves changed colour," he said.
He also said that the large "tailing ponds" where water is used to wash off lorries looks like "puddles of rust".
"The shops also have it bad. They all buy these black cloth dust barriers, so it looks even more grim.
"And shops that don't bother with the dust barriers have every surface covered in a film of dust," said Qishin.
Bauxite mining is not a recent activity in Malaysia. It started two years ago, and now production has more than quadrupled since.
From a capacity of 208,770 tonnes in 2013, it has grown to a staggering 20 million tonnes in 2015.
What is worrying is that bauxite mining was an unregulated activity. And not only was it unregulated, but there were a number of illegal miners eager to get their foot in this lucrative business.
Presently, little standard operating procedure or best operating practices are being applied by the mining companies, resulting in devastating damage to the environment and perhaps, even human health, safety and welfare.
But why did this issue – potentially hazardous to our health and environment – go relatively unnoticed until last month?
"It is sad that something has to happen before something is done," said water quality specialist Dr Zaki Zainudin when met on Wednesday.
"The issue has been there for quite some time and there has been this back and forth going on between the Federal and state-level authorities.
"And there has been warnings prior to this by specialists and authorities, but there was no sense of urgency to do something," he said.
The potential environmental problems are indeed worrying.
According to a statement by a panel of 17 environmental professionals and scientists (that Dr Zaki is part of), bauxite mining can precipitate out heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury, aluminium as well as others pollutants that will enter the rivers during rain.
Deposits on road surfaces during the transport of bauxite will also be picked up by runoff. And the process of "bauxite washing" generates effluent which also enters the watercourses.
These metals can adversely affect human health if consumed over an extended period of time.
In fact, on one occasion, monitoring data from the Department of Environment (DOE) showed mercury levels at the Bukit Goh intake to be at 0.0093 mg/L. This is almost 10 times higher than the permissible limit of 0.0010 mg/L adopted by the Ministry of Health and DOE.
The levels of mercury, arsenic and manganese in other rivers were also high.
However, I must note that the Health Ministry performed their own sampling regime and found that the water quality met the standards.
"The results can be contestable, there are various environmental factors, such as whether it rained, that could have caused different results," said Dr Zaki when asked about the differing results.
"But the fact of the matter is, you have a clear and present danger in bauxite mines located upstream. Do you really want to risk it?"
Further, Dr Zaki said that the sediment from bauxite mining not only makes the water murkier but also makes the river shallower.
This will damage aquatic habitats, elevate flood risks and potentially disrupt operations of water treatment plants.
Malaysia's water treatment plants have very basic technology, and Dr Zaki said that it is not designed to treat very polluted or highly contaminated water.
Hence, there is a risk that these metals will escape the treatment plant and enter the water distribution network, reaching people's drinking water.
But our water is not only the matter of concern – fish, shellfish and other aquatic organisms may also be exposed to the heavy metals in the water.
These heavy metals can easily accumulate up the food chain through the process called bioaccumulation.
"When one aquatic organism feeds on another contaminated organism, the contamination in the biota biomagnifies up the food chain," read the statement by the 17 environmental professionals.
"Humans being at the top of several food chains become the most vulnerable species to any contamination of the aquatic environment, be it freshwater or marine," it said.
After looking into the bauxite issue in deeper depth, I find it shocking that the state government and DOE did not regulate bauxite mining sooner.
But I do hope that the temporary halt in mining will give the authorities time to iron out a more sustainable solution.
The health of the people in Kuantan and environment cannot be sidelined no matter the economic gain.
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