Rivers and the sea ran red in parts of Malaysia this week after two days of heavy rain brought an increase in run-off from the booming and largely unregulated bauxite mining industry.
Demand from China for the aluminum ingredient has fed a rapid rise in bauxite mining in the third-largest state of Pahang, in the east of peninsular Malaysia, and concern is growing about the impact on the environment.
Media on Wednesday showed images of red seas and rivers near the state capital of Kuantan, the center of the industry and the location of a port from which much of the bauxite is shipped.
Reporters said the sea were discolored along a 15 km (9 mile) stretch of coast.”Of course the federal government and state government are concerned,” Natural Resources and Environment Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar told Reuters.
“There has been an ongoing discussion but unfortunately during the monsoon season things got worse. Stockpiles leach out into the sea.”
In just three years, Malaysia has transformed itself from a modest supplier to the top source of the material for China.
The change came after Indonesia banned bauxite exports in early 2014, forcing China, the world’s top aluminum producer, to seek supplies elsewhere.
In the first 11 months of 2015, Malaysia shipped more than 20 million tonnes of bauxite to China, up nearly 700 percent on the previous year. In 2013, it shipped just 162,000 tonnes.
Residents have complained of contamination of water sources and the destruction of their environment as mining operations remove the red earth rich in bauxite.
Wan Junaidi has told parliament there is little regulation of the industry and how it manages waste. The ministry has prepared regulations but they have yet to be adopted by the state.
Kuantan member of parliament Fuziah Salleh said it was a simple process for companies to get a license to extract laterites, basic materials for aluminum production. Once they have the licenses, they can start extracting, she said.
The state government has done little to protect the environment and residents during the industry’s growth, she said.
This was despite it finding in August that levels of aluminum, mercury, arsenic and manganese in one river were at a level so high it was unusable for consumption, irrigation or recreation, she said.
Fuziah cited a report from the state’s environment department, a copy of which she showed to Reuters.
“The situation is lawless,” she told Reuters. “It’s a free for all. Bauxite could easily be sustainable but they are doing terrible things to the environment.”
Pahang’s top environment official was unavailable for comment on Wednesday.
Media has reported angry residents burning trucks taking bauxite to the port in protest over the environmental impact.
(Additional reporting by Rozanna Latiff and Emily Chow; Editing by Simon Webb, Robert Birsel)