The Bukit Kepong assemblyman’s apology showed that the state realised mistakes made in handling the two incidents, which occurred in March and June.
The two toxic pollution incidents resulted in at least 5,000 people having breathing difficulties and suffering from nausea, with many being admitted to clinics and hospitals.
The Pakatan Harapan-led state government, especially Dr Sahruddin’s predecessor, Datuk Osman Sapian, came under fire from Pasir Gudang residents over the handling of the Sungai Kim Kim pollution.
Osman especially became the target of withering criticism for going overseas during the height of the incident in March. He eventually stepped down from his post.
For Dr Sahruddin, who was the state exco member for health during Osman’s tenure, it must have been a sense of deja vu when he had to face a similar incident three months later, but this time as Mentri Besar.
Not surprisingly, the affected residents vented their frustration with the state government when chemical pollution once again led to the closure of schools in June.
Life in the industrial town was topsy-turvy as a bevy of federal and state experts tried to figure out what was causing the pollution.
It did not help when state health, culture and heritage committee chairman Mohd Khuzzan Abu Bakar was reported as saying the state was not ruling out the possibility of bird droppings being the cause of the vomiting and breathing difficulty suffered by pupils of SK Tanjung Puteri Resort.
His statement sparked a furious backlash on social media with many people questioning whether the state government was serious about the pollution incidents in Pasir Gudang.
Residents here felt frustrated with the official response, so much so they formed a pressure group in the hopes of getting a better answer from the authorities.
Badan Bertindak Penduduk Isu Pencemaran Alam (BBPIPA), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) formed by the residents after the first chemical incident in March, said it wanted the state government to conduct an in-depth study first before coming up with theories such as bird droppings.
“Stop treating residents – victims of the Sungai Kim Kim pollution incidents – as fools because we are frustrated with this situation,” said its chairman Muhammad Fauzi Rohani.
Fauzi’s anger was vindicated when the Health Ministry ruled out pigeon droppings as a factor in the incident which affected schools in June.
The authorities did take action. The Department of Environment (DOE) installed gas monitoring systems in all 111 schools in Pasir Gudang and conducted enforcement operations at factories but students continued to fall sick. No one seemed clear about what was happening and why.
Even a town hall meeting called by the mentri besar to engage with residents on Aug 7 – more than a month after the incident – failed to quell anger, with BBPIPA members holding a demonstration outside the venue, the Pasir Gudang Indoor Stadium.
They held placards and two large banners, which read “Welcome to Toxic Area” and “Mana Hilang MB Johor” (Where has the Johor Mentri Besar disappeared to).
They felt the Mentri Besar was not willing to be criticised or face the harsh reality that the people faced on the ground. The town hall, they claimed, was a mere eyewash.
Now, another pollution crisis has hit Pasir Gudang with Sungai Kopok waters, near Kampung Perigi Acheh, turning black and foamy allegedly because of waste dumped into the river.
State local government, urban well-being and environment committee chairman Tan Chen Choon rushed to the area last week to get a first-hand look.
He announced that the state government was aware of the problems faced by residents of Kampung Perigi Acheh and viewed seriously the pollution in Sungai Kopok, which is believed to have originated from its tributary, Sungai Daing.
He said the DOE would conduct a quality assessment of water samples taken from Sungai Daing.
The state government needs to immediately come up with strong measures to assure the public that they mean business in tackling the repeat pollution issues in Pasir Gudang.
They should be taking illegal factory owners to court and demolishing all illegal structures.They should also be releasing data to the public and residents in this area about the air or water quality via social media.
The state government should also pay heed to the recent remarks from the Regent of Johor, Tunku Mahkota Ismail Ibni Sultan Ibrahim, who directed the administration to better manage its water resources and educate the public on proper water usage.
The state government needs to be bold and serious in engaging with all stakeholders, including residents and NGOs such as the Malaysian Nature Society to avert another pollution incident.
They need to learn from past mistakes and find better ways to tackle pollution issues in the state or else Dr Sahruddin may find himself apologising to the people over and over again.
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