By James Gough
The scenic hills of the Kinta Valley have always been a talking point by many groups. The environmental NGOs would like to preserve the hills for future generations while the state government considers them as a source of revenue, which were leased out to the quarry operators over 30 years ago. Back then the limestone extracted was used for roads, cement and the construction industry and was mainly produced by companies such as Tasek Cement or Hume Cement. Subsequently, marble furniture came into fashion, as well as the introduction of calcium carbonate powder or CCP which found use in a whole string of industries. With the demise of the tin-mining industry in the early 1980s, quarrying for rocks and marble has become the most active industry in the valley.
Demand for white limestone
The Kinta Valley limestone consists largely of calcite (calcium carbonate or dolomite). The colour is mainly white, and even though it is tinged with a touch of grey, it has no effect on demand.
The demand for white limestone is high because of its usage. It is used in a wide range of industries such as to whiten paper, in paints as a bond, in plastics as a filler and an alternative to oil based resins and a multitude of other uses which include latex gloves, skin whitening and toothpaste.
“The largest amount of limestone in Malaysia is found at Simpang Pulai and the Kinta Valley,” said Dr Kamaludin Hassan, the Director of the Mineral and Geoscience Department, located at Jalan Sultan Azlan Shah.
Kamaludin also acknowledged there are substantial amounts of granite in the valley though most of it is found along the Kledang Range, west of the valley.
The Kinta Valley stretches from Kampar to Tanjung Tualang in the south, Chemor and Kanthan to the north and Simpang Pulai to the east.
The whole of the Kinta Valley is underlain with limestone, the major bedrock present in the form of hills above and under the ground.
Kinta Valley’s limestone is actually meta-sedimentary-rock and is believed to have been formed between the Triassic (230-190 million years) to Permian (280-230 million years) periods.
Audrey Shanta-Poh, the Managing Director for Uniko Calcium Carbonate Industry, has been in the industry since the 1980s. Poh’s factory supplies calcium carbonate to the paper industry.
She related that in the ‘80s her immediate neighbours then were the hills and the jungles. Over the years, more limestone-processing factories have sprung up at Simpang Pulai and they are now her new neighbours.
Another of the ‘80s start-up companies is Sri Martek Marble Industries which manufactures marble furniture. One of the factory’s founders, who declined to have his name revealed, stated that their factory initially was making marble tiles but subsequently branched out to TV cabinets, table tops and other marble-based furniture.
Sri Martek Marble is currently one of very few marble furniture manufacturers still around. With a market that is not expanding and costs increasing, one of the reasons why it has survived thus far is because it owns it own limestone hill, which is the source of its raw materials.
By managing its quarry operations and controlling its raw material yields, the company has remained competitive.
The state government earns its revenue from quarry operations. Whenever a lorry load of rock leaves the quarry, the lorry is weighed at the weighbridge and a royalty charged according to the weigh-bridge ticket.
This procedure applies to both the granite and limestone quarry operators. There are no additional charges for downstream processed products, for example, calcium carbonate powder.
However, if the limestone or granite rock is exported unprocessed as a raw material, the state government imposes an export levy.
According to Dr Kamaludin, the revenue earned from the limestone and granite industry amounts to RM50 million per year.
The early limestone quarry owners who began 30 years ago had applied for a portion of a hill to begin their operations. Sometimes a hill would be owned by three quarries. The owners would carry out blasting on their side of the hill and when they had exhausted the lease on their side would have to leave a boundary between owners measuring 1 chain or 66 feet as part of the government requirement. This was a waste and would scar the landscape.
Simpang Pulai – Support Industries and Infrastructure
Dr Kamaludin attributed the reason for the large number of limestone quarries in Simpang Pulai to the quality of limestone found there. Perak Quarry Association (PQA) President, Chong Sook Kian, however, differed slightly. He said that logistics and infrastructure were what had prompted the proliferation of quarrying activities there.
Chong said that it was more cost effective to extract and sell limestone from Simpang Pulai than from Gua Musang, Kelantan which also has large deposits of limestone.
Acknowledging the abundance of quality limestone, Chong explained that when the tin industry collapsed, foundries in the Kinta Valley were willing to support the quarry players. In time, the quarries were the biggest users of foundry products, casting equipment parts and replacing wear and tear parts for their crushers.
Other related factors were logistics and nearby markets. Quarries use lorries to transfer their products to the ports of Penang and Port Klang. Their markets, which are made up of the paint, plastics and glove factories, are located on the west coast.
Interestingly, a multi-national company, who wished not to be named, confirmed that it used the Lumut Port, 70 km away, to ship its products to Singapore and Indonesia by barges and to India by sea vessels. “The service provided is most satisfactory,” said the company source.
Each quarry would use the services of at least two foundries, one mechanical and one electrical and five lorry transport companies.
According to Chong there are 64 quarries in Perak and each had an average of about 50 workers. Considering that each quarry engages the services of foundries, lorry transporters and other general services, the limestone and quarry industry has a sizeable workforce.
Multi-Nationals and New Technologies
In the early 2000s Imerys Minerals (Malaysia) Sdn Bhd, a French minerals-based solutions provider started their limestone quarry at Simpang Pulai.
Unlike the local quarry operators, Imerys produces high-quality ground calcium carbonate (GCC) to a gauge which is finer than what most of the local operators are capable of producing.
In 2005 Imerys initiated an Environment Management System (EMS) which would make efforts to rehabilitate the bare landscape created by quarrying activities.
Ipoh Echo visited Imerys to view their EMS and met with their Quarry Manager, Mohd Yazid Mohd Dan. Yazid explained that the company’s environmental rehabilitation programme was to educate workers to comply with environmental health standards.
To enable a sustainable programme, Imerys purchased the quarries adjacent to it and, subsequently, owned the whole hill.
It then constructed a road to the top and initiated a top-down quarrying operation. To mitigate the bared slopes, it collected the natural flora from the area, such as angsana, cherry trees and lemon grass and cultivated them in its nursery. They were subsequently replanted along the hill slopes ultimately presenting a greener and a more visually-pleasant image of the quarry as opposed to bare slopes.
According to Yazid, the replanted cherry trees had over the years managed to attract monkeys and squirrels back to the area.
The top-down quarry operation would eventually reduce the hill to ground zero and would then be used for other economic activities.
Ipoh Echo was alerted about the environmental rehabilitation work done by Imerys by Dr Kamaludin. Imerys’ approach to quarrying and environmental rehabilitation was very positive and, if done by all players, would improve the image of the industry.
PQA President Chong too agreed that the quarrying methods by the French multi-national company are safer, professional and environmentally friendly. However, cost and economies of scale will prevent local companies from doing the same.
Kamaludin stated that the whole of the Kinta Valley was underlain with limestone which translates to it having an infinite supply of limestone. As such “local companies should form groups and work towards rehabilitation” added Kamaludin.
Considering that there is an abundant supply of limestone, wouldn’t it be proper to initiate rehabilitation programmes now?