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Fikirlah: Lesson in crisis management, enforcement
Published on: Saturday, March 23, 2019
By: Bernama

JOHOR BAHRU: It was shocking when Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Minister Yeo Bee Yin revealed that there were 46 areas in Pasir Gudang, Johor, that could potentially be polluted by toxic chemicals.

The locations were discovered via satellite imagery whilst the authorities were trying to find the source or location of the chemical leak at Sungai Kim Kim that led to hundreds of people, including students, seeking medical care after they developed symptoms such as vomiting, shortness of breath, nausea and fainting more than a week ago.

Now it is not about Sungai Kim Kim anymore but the reality the residents of Pasir Gudang has been confronting for many years. They live in an industrial area and the factories there include 252 plants believed to be involved in processing chemical substances. Illegal dumping of waste is believed to be a daily occurrence over there.

Apparently, every year the residents of Taman Tanjung Puteri Resort in Pasir Gudang complain to the authorities but since no action has so far been taken, they have had to bear the stench emanating from Sungai Selangkah, a tributary of Sungai Kim Kim, since 2011.

Yeo’s announcement that her ministry would step up its enforcement activities is most welcome as the illegal dumping of chemical waste can only be contained through more effective enforcement.  

Apart from that, the Environmental Quality Act 1974 has to be reviewed and amended to provide for tougher penalties. This way, the culprits concerned will think twice about dumping their waste as they wish. Their highly inconsiderate actions not only harm our environment but also pose a danger to humans and other living beings. 

Offenders convicted of dumping toxic waste illegally should not be given the chance to take the easy way out. The imposition of steep fines that they can ill-afford to pay will act as a good deterrent.

When the first wave of methane poisoning took place in Pasir Gudang on March 7, no one expected it to become as serious as it did.

The incident took everyone by surprise because here we were facing a threat from pollutants that we could not see with our naked eyes but the effects of which impacted the health of thousands of people, some of whom were also affected emotionally and psychologically.

When the so-called “Kim Kim symptoms” struck one person after another in Pasir Gudang, I was reminded of an incident in my school long ago when many students, regardless of age and race, were hit by hysteria.

The Johor state administrative heads, some of whom have barely served for a year, have never experienced anything like the Sungai Kim Kim crisis. But they worked as a team and succeeded in containing the issue with the help of local experts.

Yeo displayed good leadership in the way she handled the crisis, at the same time making use of her own expertise in chemical engineering. She ordered the setting up of a scientific committee, headed by a Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) professor, to investigate the Sungai Kim Kim pollution.

Within five days (after the first wave of methane poisoning took place on March 7), the authorities conducted a massive clean-up of the affected stretch of Sungai Kim Kim and made it safe again.

Members of the medical and security teams, as well as volunteers and media personnel, also deserve praise for being on the front line; in fact, some of them fell ill too while busy discharging their duties.

The state government and local authorities certainly have a lot more to learn when it comes to the standard operating procedures (SOP) pertaining to crisis management, particularly when dealing with something new like chemical contamination.

For instance, it was difficult for the public to have access to updates on the situation.

This led to the rumour mill going into overdrive, so much so that 70 to 90 percent of the people who were referred to the Medic Base Treatment Centre (at the Pasir Gudang closed-door stadium) were not there to be treated for inhaling toxic fumes but, instead, had suffered from panic attack after reading the fake reports that were circulating widely.

I support the suggestion by the head of the newly-established scientific committee, dean of UTM’s Science Faculty Prof Dr Abdull Rahim Mohd Yusoff, that it was essential to create an SOP for handling hazardous chemical disasters, which can be referred to by the authorities in future. 

With a proper SOP in place, the authorities can follow the prescribed guidelines, thus avoiding the shortcomings that were identified whilst handling the recent Sungai Kim Kim chemical contamination. – Bernama



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