Panic escalates in Pasir Gudang over illegal toxic dumping

Education minister says all 111 schools in Pasir Gudang were ordered to close indefinitely, from 11 initially, as the situation worsened yesterday

By NUR HAZIQAH A MALEK / Pic By BERNAMA

About 500 people had been treated for breathing difficulties and over 30,000 school children were forced to stay at home, while thousands of people in Pasir Gudang lived in fear in one of the country’s worst environmental calamities in recent history.

The chemical spill, which was due to the illegal dumping of toxic waste into the Kim Kim River, had the federal and state agencies scurrying to provide assistance to thousands of victims.

Emergency workers were busy treating victims, many of whom were children and students exposed to the fumes, believed to be methane. Many of the victims experienced suffocation, headache, dizziness and even loss of consciousness — symptoms related to methane poisoning.

The students were largely from schools along the river, but the dry spell and heavy winds pushed the toxic fumes to a larger area, creating panic across the industrial town of Pasir Gudang, about a 30-minute drive from Johor Baru.

The Taman Pasir Putih Community Hall had been turned into a makeshift treatment centre before the victims were transferred to hospitals.

Malaysian Fire and Rescue Department (JBPM) officers in complete protective gear had been taking readings from the location impacted by the toxic dumping.

An illegal factory owner is expected to be charged today for illegal toxic waste disposal into the Kim Kim River, said Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change (MESTECC) Minister Yeo Bee Yin.

Yeo also said three individuals had been arrested in connection with the dumping and an investigation into the matter had been completed.

“Three suspects (were) nabbed and investigation had just been completed. I will head there again this morning, the culprit will be brought to justice,” she said in a tweet yesterday morning.

Yeo also said the suspect will be charged at the court under the Environmental Quality Act 1974 34(b). If found guilty, the suspect can be fined not more than RM500,000 and/or five years of jail.

It was reported that the suspect is an illegal factory owner that was involved in the recycling of tyres located in Kulai.

Yeo, who was in Pasir Gudang to mobilise the resources for the Johor Department of Environment (DoE), said she is in contact with Attorney General Tommy Thomas on the possibility of bringing multiple charges against the suspects due to the severity of the case.

But Yeo hoped the public will get the updates from official sources.

“I hope the public will spread only official updates and not to believe in hearsay or irresponsible media headlines that get their headlines from unsolicited Facebook updates,” Yeo added.

So far, almost 500 people, many of whom were students, were hospitalised after inhaling the toxic fumes emanating from the waste, reported Bernama.

Yeo said the disaster management committee, spearheaded by the Johor state government, will do most of the crisis management updates.

The DoE in a statement said it had also investigated the premise suspected as soon as it received the chemical analysis from the state’s chemical department.

“The results of the sample’s analysis at the premise shows a result that matches the DoE’s sample from the Kim Kim River,” it said.

As of yesterday, cleaning works of the affected river were carried out by the Chemical Waste Spill Disaster Relief Committee.

“In addition, the state DoE will continue to monitor the air in the affected areas, while the cleaning work is being carried out to ensure the wellbeing of the people,” it said.

It was reported that at least eight samples of the chemicals were identified though there were other still unknown contaminants.

Gas detection monitors will also be placed around the affected areas to check on the air quality, which is important as to detect toxic pollutants at different altitudes.

Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik said all 111 schools in Pasir Gudang were ordered to close, from 11 initially, as the situation worsened yesterday.

“We view this matter seriously as it involves the lives of the students, teachers and school workforce. We urge the perpetrators to be brought to justice immediately,” he said, adding that all three ministries, including Health Ministry have been working closely on the issue.