The toxic dumping incident in Pasir Gudang is Malaysia’s worst environmental disaster

Pertubuhan Pelindung Khazanah Alam Malaysia (PEKA Malaysia) is appalled at and deeply saddened by the recent chemical dumping incident in Pasir Gudang, Johor. This incident is the worst environmental disaster in Malaysia, the first ever by the scale of affected area and severity. Its long-term impact and damage will undoubtedly be revealed in the years to come.

It is only through the grace of God that there have been no deaths yet linked to the toxic pollution caused by the dumping.

While the authorities’ handling of the crisis is commendable, this environmental disaster was something the authorities could have and should have prevented.

If Sungai Kim Kim’s water quality had been properly monitored, the level of chemicals would have been detected. The detection of chemicals would have led to an investigation that would reveal the illegal dumping that was happening there and with proper enforcement, the dumping would have been stopped and the culprits charged. Unfortunately, the authorities have no excuse.

The Malaysian government has departments like the Department of Environment to take charge of water quality issues. The Department of Environment is responsible for tracking the water quality in Malaysia using the Water Quality Index and National Water Quality Standards.

The National Water Quality Monitoring Programme added new rivers in the country to control the presence of Biochemical Oxygen Demand, Ammoniacal Nitrogen and Suspended Solids. This system significantly improves the water quality in Malaysia. However, the country lacks a nationally recognised standard for water quality. Several agencies manage the system, but they have no legal ties or obligations to follow certain policies.

The authorities should immediately focus on creating a cohesive and binding system in Malaysia that will improve the water quality while also ensuring that agencies have a legal obligation to comply with monitoring practices.

The Pasir Gudang environmental disaster is far from over. The substance dumped is likely an oil-based mixture that emits methane and benzene fumes. Based on investigations so far, authorities estimate that around 20 to 40 tonnes of the oil waste were illegally dumped into parts of the Sungai Kim Kim. At this point in time, there are more questions than answers. The most important, where were the authorities all this while?

The pollution to Sungai Kim–Kim is not a single event and the chemicals were unlikely dumped overnight. The level of pollution and degraded water quality indicates that this dumping and polluting has been been going on for a long time. How were these illegal activities able to go on unnoticed over time undoubtedly is a key issue to be addressed by the authorities. The government must answer as to why weren’t any gas sampling meters or tests carried out from time to time at Sungai Kim Kim.

PEKA Malaysia strongly urges the relevant authorities in light of this incident to ensure that:-

Preventive measures are immediately implemented throughout the country. Gas and pollution test meters can be easily installed in all major industrial areas. The authorities must also, ensure that causes of water pollution be it from deforestation or other human activities be adequately addressed.

Current laws related to environmental crimes should be amended or new laws introduced that will deter and adequately deal with such crimes as crimes against humanity. The current penalty of 5 years and RM500,000 fine will not deter polluters, the government should consider a jail term of 20 years and hefty fines together with the obligation to bear the cost mitigating the damage caused. Whilst the perpetrator enjoys personal gain public funds will have to be utilised to reinstate environmental degradation brought about by these crimes. The time is rife for the introduction of the precautionary principle in the offensive against environmental perpetrators. The Courts mist also take cognisance of environmental offences as crimes against humanity and impose strict and heftier penalties on parties found guilty of environmental crimes.

Lastly, industries must be heavily regulated. Every chemical-related industrial process MUST be scrutinised and monitored closely. The argument that the enforcement agencies lack resources is an unacceptable excuse that can be addressed with proper resource management.

Malaysia is lucky that the environmental disaster unfolding in Pasir Gudang has not resulted in a massive loss of life so far. We may not be so lucky the next time a man-made environmental disaster happens. Must there be massive loss of lives before the Government or the authorities are compelled to take environmental crimes seriously? Undoubtedly Prevention is better and safer than having to fix a major environmental disaster?

The Malaysian Government must treat the incident as a threat to national security and it will be failing in its duty if immediate measures are not taken to protect the environment for the safety and well-being of the rakyat.

By: Puan Sri Sharrifa Sabrina Syed Akil, PEKA Malaysia President

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