New York Times
· A $230 million refinery being built here in an effort to break China’s global chokehold on rare earth metals is plagued by environmentally hazardous construction and design problems, according to internal memos and current and former engineers on the project.
· But the construction and design may have serious flaws, according to the engineers, who also provided memos, e-mail messages and photos from Lynas and its contractors. The engineers said they felt a professional duty to voice their safety concerns, but insisted on anonymity to avoid the risk of becoming industry outcasts.
· The problems they detail include structural cracks, air pockets and leaks in many of the concrete shells for 70 containment tanks, some of which are larger than double-decker buses. Ore mined deep in the Australian desert and shipped to Malaysia would be mixed with powerful acids to make a slightly radioactive slurry that would be pumped through the tanks, with operating temperatures of about 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
· The engineers also say that almost all of the steel piping ordered for the plant is made from standard steel, which they describe as not suited for the corrosive, abrasive slurry. Rare earth refineries in other countries make heavy use of costlier stainless steel or steel piping with ceramic or rubber liners.
· The engineers also say that the concrete tanks were built using conventional concrete, not the much costlier polymer concrete mixed with plastic that is widely used in refineries in the West to reduce the chance of cracks.
· Documents show that Lynas and its construction management contractor, UGL Ltd. of Australia, have argued with their contractors that the cracks and moisture in the concrete containment walls are not a critical problem.
· Memos also show that Lynas and UGL have pressed a Malaysian contractor, Cradotex, to proceed with the installation of watertight fiberglass liners designed for the containment tanks without fixing the moisture problem and with limited fixes to the walls. But Cradotex has resisted.
· “These issues have the potential to cause the plants critical failure in operation,” Peter Wan, the general manager of Cradotex, said in a June 20 memo. “More critically the toxic, corrosive and radioactive nature of the materials being leached in these tanks, should they leak, will most definitely create a contamination issue.”
· Mr. Wan said in a telephone interview Tuesday that he believed Lynas and UGL would be able to fix the moisture problem but that he did not know what method the companies might choose to accomplish this.
· The fiberglass liners are made by AkzoNobel of Amsterdam, one of the world’s largest chemical companies. AkzoNobel says it, too, worries about the rising moisture.
· “We will not certify or even consider the use of our coatings if this problem can’t be fixed,” Tim van der Zanden, AkzoNobel’s top spokesman in Amsterdam, wrote on Monday night in an e-mail reply to questions.
· Memos show that the refinery’s concrete foundations were built without a thin layer of plastic that might prevent the concrete pilings from drawing moisture from the reclaimed swampland underneath. The site is located just inland from a coastal mangrove forest, and several miles up a river that flows out to the sea past an impoverished fishing village.
· An engineer involved in the project said that the blueprints called for the plastic waterproofing but that he was ordered to omit it, to save money. The plastic costs $1.60 a square foot, he said.
· One setback for the Lynas project is that a crucial contractor, AkzoNobel, pulled out this autumn, according to engineers here and internal company e-mails. The Dutch chemicals multinational had a contract to supply important resins.
· The resins are supposed to glue together dozens of fiberglass liners for concrete-walled tanks up to the size of double-decker buses. Hundreds of tons of rare earths with low levels of radioactive contamination will be mixed in the lined tanks with extremely corrosive acids at more than 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
· The corrosiveness of acids increases steeply at high temperatures, which makes acids ideal for dissolving ore but difficult to handle.
· AkzoNobel has long specialized in making some of the most esoteric resins for the mining industry. It uses a secret chemical formula to help the resins hold together fiberglass even under challenging combinations of heat and corrosiveness. The company said last spring that it would supply chemicals for the Lynas project only if it were certain that it would be safe.
· Engineers involved in the project said, and internal e-mails showed, that AkzoNobel withdrew from supplying the chemicals after it was told that the fiberglass liners would be installed in concrete-walled tanks that have a problem with rising dampness in the floors and cracks in the walls. AkzoNobel had been in discussions about the problem of rising dampness, but only became aware of the cracks this autumn, according to the engineers and the memos.
· The engineers said they felt a professional duty to voice their safety concerns, but insisted on anonymity to avoid the risk of becoming industry outcasts.
· In an e-mail, AkzoNobel said that it was no longer supplying the project, but gave only a brief explanation. “Due to changes in the project specification, AkzoNobel would only recommend the use of its linings on the project subject to the successful results of longer-term testing,” the company said. “That testing cannot be completed within the current project time scale.”
· Engineers involved in the project said that Lynas was building costlier steel-walled tanks for a second phase of the factory, which would avoid the need for concrete-walled tanks with fiberglass liners.
A person familiar with the project, who requested anonymity because of the controversy associated with it, said Wednesday that electrical wiring at the project had still not been completed.
Part of the problem is that some components were ordered late and could not be manufactured quickly, the person said, although Lynas has denied that. It would be very difficult, although not impossible, to run the refinery while continuing to install further wiring.
An engineer with a detailed knowledge of the project said Wednesday that another delay had come up in recent days. Complex electronic components that require a long time to manufacture were ordered late and will not be ready for the first phase of the refinery’s construction until November, said the engineer, who requested anonymity to avoid retaliation by Lynas in the close-knit mineral processing industry.
Parts of the refinery can be commissioned without the components, including kilns for drying ore, the engineer said, but other sections of the production process require the components.
The engineer disagreed, insisting that the parts were needed for the first phase.
The report did not assess the quality of workmanship and construction engineering at the site. Current and former engineers on the project have warned of environmentally hazardous construction and design problems at the refinery because of cost-cutting and shoddy workmanship,