At a bustling open-air café nearby, we order tea and ais kacang, giant shaved-ice desserts laden with chopped-up jello and sweet, sticky red beans. I dig in, but the station owner—I'll call him Esso Man, since he doesn't want me to use his real name—is moodily stirring his into a slushy puddle. We're here to ask him about something he doesn't like to talk about: a job he did 30 years ago, when he owned a trucking company. He got a contract with a local industrial plant called Asian Rare Earth, co-owned by Mitsubishi Chemical, that supplied special minerals to the personal electronics industry.
Esso Man couldn't believe his luck. He wasn't a rich man back then, and Asian Rare Earth offered three times as much as his usual gigs, just for trucking waste away from the plant. They didn't say where or how to dump the waste, and he and his three drivers were paid by the load—the quicker the trip, the more money they earned. "Sometimes they would tell us it was fertilizer, so we would take it to local farms," Esso Man says. "My uncle was a vegetable farmer, so I gave some to him." Other times, the refinery officials said the stuff was quicklime, so one driver painted his house with it. "He thought it was great, because it made all the mosquitoes and mice stay away.
In fact, Esso Man and his drivers were hauling toxic and radioactive waste, as they'd discover a year later, when Asian Rare Earth tried to build a dump in a neighboring town. Residents there began to protest, and a few activists took a Geiger counter to the plant, where they found levels of radiation that were off the charts—up to 88 times higher than those allowed under international guidelines. In 1985, after residents sued, the government ordered the plant to be closed until Asian Rare Earth cleaned up its mess.
As we finish our dessert, I ask Esso Man about the white patches on his skin, which started appearing several years after he'd worked with Asian Rare Earth's waste. His doctors speculate they might have to do with his exposure to radioactivity, he says, but they can't be sure. Such medical guesswork is common in Bukit Merah, since no one has ever formally studied the impact of radiation exposure among the village's 11,000 residents. (Mitsubishi denies any health effects.) And anyway, sometimes Esso Man thinks it might just be stress that's causing his skin condition. "I feel regret about working for that company," he says glumly. "I feel bad that I gave people all that toxic waste. Even my own uncle." All of Esso Man's drivers have died young—not one lived past his 50s. "I don't know why they died and I am still alive."
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