GEORGE TOWN: Once you see it, it is hard to unsee it.
Since May 2013, every motorist heading to the island using the Penang Bridge can clearly see the lurid, yellow gash scarring Bukit Relau. It is a constant reminder for Penangites of just how long it takes for a hill’s pristine environment to be restored after it has been cleared.
“Nothing has gone on after we started remediation work. Now we are just waiting for the trees to grow back,” said an official with the company that created the winding road up the hill, which is about 370m above sea level.
The official gave assurance that the slopes of the cleared stretches had stabilised and there were no more signs of erosion.
“It won’t give trouble to Penangites anymore. We don’t have any work going on there. You can go see it for yourself,” he said.
The Star has been keeping photographic records of the restoration of Bukit Relau, infamously known as “Botak Hill” (bald hill).
A recent comparison showed that the foliage of replanted trees had increased compared with previous aerial photographs.
But the grass on the cut slopes appeared to have yellowed because of the drier weather, making the scar on the hill look more vivid.
“It will turn green again when the rainy season starts,” said the lone caretaker at the barricade leading up to the hilltop.
He said he was the only person there and took pictures of The Star team launching a drone along the dirt trail about 300m from the barricaded entrance.
He added that Penang Island City Council (MBPP) officials regularly dropped by to take drone pictures of the hill.
“Earlier, they came every week,” the caretaker said.
Farmers carrying baskets of fruits could be seen further up the hill.
Penang Bridge user Kenneth Chan, who works in Bayan Lepas and lives in Alma, Bukit Mertajam, said he never missed a chance to study Bukit Relau’s condition every time he drove across the bridge.
“Every time I see it when I drive to work, I remember how hot the issue was. Sometimes, I wonder if any work is going on up there. It looked the same for years, so I don’t think there is any construction work,” he said.
A senior official in the government recalls the furore the hill clearing created.
“It was done between April and May in 2013, when we were all busy with the 13th General Election. None of us realised it had happened,” he said.
After the elections, the official, who declined to be named, said nearby residents and Bukit Relau hikers complained of the sudden bare hilltop to then Seri Delima assemblyman R.S.N. Rayer, who is now Jelutong MP.
“We took the developer to court, but we had to penalise it with a smaller offence because it only cleared the hill to make a dirt road to the top. There was no evidence of serious earthworks like soil-nailing or guniting (spraying slopes with a mixture of concrete and sand),” he said.
He said in a more severe infringement – Section 19(1) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1976 – the developer could have faced a fine of up to RM500,000 or imprisonment of up to two years or both.
But there was no evidence of construction beyond the hill clearing to create the dirt road, Rayer said.
The landowner, General Accomplishment Sdn Bhd, was fined RM30,000 by the Sessions Court in July 2013.
MBPP appealed to the High Court for a heavier fine, but failed as the High Court could not find prior authority or justification to impose the maximum fine of RM50,000.
In May this year, one of the landowners, Tan Sri Khor Eng Chuen, said mitigation works required by MBPP had successfully prevented erosion.
“The works include 12km of drainage to channel water flow on the hill, especially during a downpour.
“We also conducted slope treatment, hydro seeding and turfing to prevent erosion.
“Since we bought over the land in 2011, there has been no landslide or erosion on the site,” Khor told reporters when he visited the hill with them.