Local authorities in Johor State have recently intensified inspections on chemical factories operating in the industrial town of Pasir Gudang after a series of public health hazards surfaced again in June and July. In June, 75 people including students were hospitalized due to unspecified gas leaks and in July, 39 students from five schools reported nausea and shortness of breath over suspected toxic fumes. This transpired several months after the Kim Kim River pollution incident in March which caused 4,000 people to fall sick. Frequent health hazards due to pollution stirred public outcry over what was believed to be inadequate enforcement of environmental regulations on illegal chemical factories operating in Pasir Gudang.
In its efforts to mitigate further air quality deterioration, Malaysia’s State government pledged to shut down illegal factories in Pasir Gudang within a one-month period. The town houses about 2,005 factories, out of which, 252 are chemical plants. To conduct a thorough investigation process, police set up four roadblocks at Pasir Gudang’s exit points in late June to prevent attempts by factory owners from transporting toxic wastes in and out of the town.
According to the State Health, Culture and Heritage Committee, 81 out of 90 factories have committed at least one or more offences under the Environment Quality Act. Meanwhile, the Department of Environment (DOE) also identified three chemical factories, within a 3 kilometer-radius of the affected schools, with high amounts of toxic gases such as methyl mercaptan, acrolein, and acrylonitrile. It remains unclear if the recent pollution cases were linked with these factories, as the authorities have not publicly announced the companies’ names and the nature of their businesses.
The plants, which have since been closed down on July 11, had exorbitantly high methyl mercaptan readings. According to DOE, the readings were 130 parts per million (ppm) higher than the permissible level of about 40 ppm. Methyl mercaptan is a type of flammable gas that is used in the plastics industry as well as in producing methionine in industrial quantities as a dietary component in poultry and animal feed. Acrylonitrile is also used in plastic manufacturing, while acrolein is mostly used in the production of herbicides.
In late July, authorities announced that 67 chemical factories were operating without a license after inspecting a total of 248 factories. As a result of these inspections, 8 plants will be tried in court, 46 others were given notices, 2 have been ordered to shut down and another 8 factories will be subjected to necessary actions, although details of the disciplinary actions have yet to be announced.
In light of this, the State government has halted applications to construct new chemical plants in Pasir Gudang and is planning to relocate high-risk chemical factories elsewhere. This is in line with Johor Sultan Ibrahim Ismail’s proposal to relocate all risky chemical industries from the state as the pollution not only harms the region but also its neighboring country, Singapore. The island city-state had previously raised concerns over water contamination cases in Johor in March and April 2019, as Singapore heavily relies on water supply from the Johor River.
After being in the spotlight for a series of back-to-back chemical pollution problems, the Pasir Gudang case highlights the wider issue of illegal waste dumping in Malaysia. Industry experts believe that the lack of available technology, particularly for chemical waste recycling, as well as associated higher costs for appropriate disposal measures are the likely reasons for such illegal dumping of toxic wastes by factories. A growing number of illegal dumping sites across the country have raised concerns, especially after authorities found a chemical waste dump site at an oil palm estate in Bukit Mertajam in March, as Malaysia grapples with mounting wastes produced both domestically and overseas.
China’s global scrap import ban since 2018 has also contributed to the growth of illegal recycling plants in Malaysia, after developed countries started exporting scraps to Southeast Asia as an alternative destination. About 110,000 tons of wastes are reportedly being channeled into Malaysia on a monthly basis which exacerbates an already weak recycling system.
Customers with commercial and industrial interests in Malaysia, particularly in Pasir Gudang, are advised to ensure sub-tier suppliers operating in the area strictly comply with the country’s Environmental Quality Act and other guidelines issued by the DOE. These include obtaining legitimate permits to allow purchase, transport, storage or use of hazardous substances in the premises. As there is a possibility of relocation of factories from Pasir Gudang, companies are advised to keep abreast of announcements by the Johor government.