IT was a mere three months ago when the industrial town of Pasir Gudang was hit by several waves of chemical pollution, resulting in almost 4,000 people seeking medical treatment for breathing and respiratory illness.
Now, since last Thursday, a new wave has started, resulting in over 100 children and some adults collapsing.
While the symptoms in both cases are similar, with victims experiencing dizziness, breathing difficulties, coughing, sudden fatigue or light-headedness, the source of the pollution seems to be different.
During the first incident, the source of the pollution was easily identified as chemicals dumped along Sg Kim Kim in Kota Masai and a massive clean-up ensued.
This time around, however, the source of the gas pollution has yet to be identified, and the areas affected seem to be wider, based on the location of the schools affected since June 20.
The weather is also different now from then.
There was a dry spell during the first incident in March and now, it has been raining almost daily with heavy downpours in the evening.
Johor Mentri Besar Datuk Dr Sahruddin Jamal has said the authorities are looking at 30 companies as the possible pollutants and vowed that action would be taken against those responsible.
He has directed the Department of Environment (DoE) to work around the clock to identify the culprits.
However, this latest incident has raised a lot of questions.
It also casts doubts as to what the authorities had learnt from the first Sg Kim Kim episode and how the chemical factories, legal or illegal, are being monitored in the Pasir Gudang area.
Malaysian Nature Society vice-president Vincent Chow pointed out that during the first incident, there was talk about an all-out enforcement on the 252 chemical factories in Pasir Gudang.
“The government wanted to do chemical audits to find out whether toxic chemical waste produced here are actually reaching Kualiti Alam Waste Management Centre in Negri Sembilan.
“What has happened to all that data collected? Was there any follow-up?”
Chow is concerned whether an old illegal dumpsite in the area may be leaking chemicals which produce poisonous gasses whenever it comes into contact with rain.
The time has come for the government to be firm and order the setting up of a special inter-department task force comprising agencies such as DoE and Department of Occupation Safety and Heath (DOSH), Fire and Rescue Department and police to carry out checks and audits at all chemical factories in Pasir Gudang.
The onus is on the factory owners to produce their waste disposal schedule, which should be checked against the amount of toxic waste sent to Kualiti Alam.
Checks should also be done on private contractors engaged to dispose of toxic chemicals, as talk is rife that some of the waste from Sg Kim Kim has yet to be fully removed from Pasir Gudang and has been stored in the area while awaiting processing.
They should also order an immediate lockdown of Pasir Gudang to stop illegal dumping by the roadside, below bridges or in the mangrove areas.
Also, the DoE should set up a website or a mobile messaging group for people to channel pictures and information on illegal dumping, not just in Johor but throughout the country.
The DoE can also update their website daily on the air or water quality in Pasir Gudang for the public to get the latest readings and to dispel all fake news on social media.
There should be more engagement with environmental NGOs, fishermen associations or kampung folk to be the “eyes and ears” of the authorities and provide information on illegal dumping sites.
The time has come for all relevant government agencies to wake up and take action.
There should be strong political will and determination to rid this area of illegal toxic dumping, and to prevent another chemical incident in the future.