Topic: Environmental Governance
Media Organisation: Free Malaysia Today
GEORGE TOWN: An activist who fought against poor air quality due to open burning by illegal recycling factories in Sungai Petani has revealed that she moved out of Kedah due to such pollution.
Having spent most of her life in the northern state, Persatuan Tindakan Alam Sekitar (PTAS) Sungai Petani’s Lydia Ong Kok Fooi, 59, said her health was affected by the open burning, which continued unabated despite three years of campaigning by her group.
She said she moved back to Penang six months ago after the acrid smell of burnt plastic became worse during the movement control order (MCO), and had even endangered her life because she was already suffering from breathing problems.
At a forum organised by C4 Center today on imported waste, Ong said Kedah remained home to “hundreds” of illegal recycling factories burning non-recyclable waste in the wee hours of the morning despite repeated claims by the state that it would crack down on such operations.
She added that with Covid-19 ravaging the Kuala Muda district, where Sungai Petani is located, the factories operated with impunity. She cited a wood products factory, branded illegal by the authorities before, spewing black smoke next to a hypermarket in town “24 hours, seven days a week”.
She said when Bakar Arang, Sungai Petani’s industrial estate, was declared an EMCO area, illegal recycling factories continued burning material “at full speed”.
Ong also claimed that a handheld air quality monitor registered 100 on the PM2.5 air quality index, which made it unhealthy to be inhaled.
“I was tired of seeing black soot on my porch daily and so decided to move to Penang. This was also to save myself from an early death,” said the former resident of Taman Intan in Sungai Petani, where she had lived for decades.
Smelting and burning different
At the same forum, Department of Environment (DoE) Sungai Petani branch chief Ya Mohammad Nazir Syah Ismail said the air pollution issue did not stem from recycling factories per se, but wood-based factories which had open furnaces.
He said three such factories in Bukit Selambau were closed down last September and this saw a drastic drop in air quality complaints.
He also said it was highly unlikely that the recycling factories contributed to the current air pollution, as the air pollutant index showed moderate levels.
“It is impossible for these (recycling) factories to cause air pollution, as they are smelting plastic, not burning them,” he said.
Ya said his branch oversaw over 1,000 pollution sources in the districts of Kuala Muda, Yan and Sik, covering over 2,800 sq km, despite having only 13 personnel, of which, nine were field staff.
He said with the lack of workers, enforcement was difficult and their scope was strictly limited to environmental pollution and impact studies. He said recycling factories fell under the jurisdiction of the local authorities and the local government ministry.
Bribery remains a stumbling block
C4 researcher Wong Pui Yi said the major issue concerning plastic waste was poor monitoring and enforcement, besides alleged widespread corruption among agencies.
She said bribes had allegedly been paid to politicians in Selangor to not conduct raids, while in Sungai Petani, enforcement officers purportedly received large sums of money not to take action against illegally operating factories.
Wong said there had been claims of businessmen from China running “syndicates” in the waste recycling value chain, too. A thug-related assault against a whistleblower happened in Sungai Petani after a complaint against an illegally operating factory was lodged.
Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) president Meenakshi Raman said the country should ban the import of unwanted waste from developed countries altogether to stop the scourge.