Pasir Gudang pollution merely tip of the iceberg

More industrial zones around the country are now deemed as ‘ticking time bombs’

pic by BERNAMA

SOME of us might be familiar with the story of Erin Brockovich, a working-class American woman who brought down the industrial giant Pacific Gas and Electric Co (PG&E) after she exposed the company’s wrongdoings in Hinkley, a small community in California.

The gutsy single mother became a hero almost 30 years ago when she discovered the company had caused water contamination in the area and subsequently brought a devastating impact to the residents’ health.

In the end, the judge ordered PG&E to pay a settlement of US$333 million to be distributed among the plaintiffs.

Brockovich’s story was later turned into a successful Hollywood movie, starring Julia Roberts who also won an Academy Award for the titular role some 19 years ago.

Something similar to Brockovich’s experience is unfolding in our own backyard. Victims of the two recent pollution cases in Pasir Gudang, Johor are expected to file a lawsuit on July 17 against 11 defendants, including the state government and the Johor mentri besar.

According to reports, the lawsuit would be filed at the Johor Baru High Court by lawyer Kamarudin Ahmad, who is representing the victims.

While the Brockovich story was about one woman who represented a small community against one company, the Pasir Gudang lawsuit is by many who claimed their livelihood had been affected by the pollution.

The Pasir Gudang case may also be more complex and more severe as it involves many parties, as well as an entire industrial area that is home to many huge corporations. Many of these businesses have been there for over three decades.

As it is, the authorities are still scrambling to find ways to mitigate the issue and formulate solutions that can solve the problem while appeasing the people.

Many are also of the opinion that the Pasir Gudang case is just the tip of the iceberg as more industrial zones around the country are now deemed as “ticking time bombs”.

According to the Malaysian Investment Development Authority (Mida), industries in the country are mainly located in over 500 industrial estates or parks and 18 free industrial zones (FIZs) in various states.

“New sites that are fully equipped with infrastructure facilities such as roads, electricity and water supplies, and telecommunications are continuously being developed by state governments as well as private developers to meet demand,” according to Mida’s brochure.

One now wonders if an additional line could be added to the paragraph, which could sound like this: “The industrial areas are surrounded by ample buffer zones that are monitored closely by the authorities, which would ensure clean and safe environment for all.”

Last week, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health chairman Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye said the authorities should be more proactive in tracking down illegal waste sites — which he described as “time bombs” — before something worse happens.

He also recommended the implementation of a proper chemical management system and a “cradle-to-grave” strategy which involves taking charge of the process until waste is disposed of.

He said there is also a need for a comprehensive monitoring programme similar to the US Environmental Protection Agency for hazardous waste.

The Pasir Gudang conundrum, however, is certainly beyond illegal dumping of toxic waste and the existence of non-authorised factories.

Certain quarters also claimed that the re-zoning of agricultural land (which used to be a buffer zone for the industrial site) into commercial and residential areas is also another issue that should be examined.

The primary buffer zone represents an area or distance that is outside of the property boundary of the project or proposed activity, and involves land that may not belong to the proprietors of the industrial area or manufacturing facilities.

According to a guide by the Department of Environment (DoE), the use of land within such buffer areas is designated under the purview of local authorities or land authorities and is generally contained within local, structure, development and other official plans.

It must be highlighted as well that buffer zones are not areas of zero-use that must be left as green areas, or so-called neutral areas not to be developed. Buffer zones are areas that can be used with certain restrictions.

Some of the elements that could be part of the buffer zone between an industrial park and residential areas include roads and road reserves; car parks; drains and drain reserves; rivers and riparian reserves; lakes and other natural open water systems; primary or secondary forest; parks and open spaces; golf courses and other sporting facilities; and agriculture plots.

The DoE added that bigger buffer zones are also needed for sensitive public facilities such as hospitals, schools, national historical, cultural and heritage buildings and sites, and religious and cultural facilities.

In other words, the rapid development around industrial estates could have “pushed” the construction of new houses and commercial centres closer to the possible source of contamination and pollution.

In Pasir Gudang’s case, some claimed the residential projects are “encroaching” too fast into the industrial zone.

If this theory — of re-zoning and reclassifying of land status — is an issue, related agencies within the state government should perhaps take note and be more aware of the repercussions in the future.

Many would also agree that Pasir Gudang and Sungai Kim Kim are merely cans of worms that had just been pried open.

One worries that there might be other canisters elsewhere all over the country, amid the 500 industrial estates and 18 FIZs listed by Mida.

While the incidents that had devastated the people of Pasir Gudang have thrown the state government and federal administration into the limelight for the wrong reasons, they should certainly serve as a reminder and warning that need to be heeded.

Zainal Alam Kadir is the executive editor of The Malaysian Reserve.