PUBLIC safety has been much in the news lately. The two air pollution cases in Pasir Gudang, Johor, were extensively covered in the media.
This is not surprising since the incident not only disrupted schooling but also greatly inconvenienced the public.
In the latest incident, while the authorities suspected the release of toxic gases from chemical processing facilities nearby, no one could pinpoint the exact source.
This is different from the earlier incident in the state near Sungai Kim Kim where the source was physically visible near the river.
All kinds of theories have been put forward to explain the second incident. Some talked about the unscrupulous practice of chemical factories burying hazardous wastes that, after many years, released noxious gases into the surroundings. There’s been no definite evidence of that either.
Most people know that chemical facilities do carry safety and health risks. For that matter, all industrial plants have elements of risks in their operation.
That is why in the training of chemical plant engineers, the management of such risks is very much part and parcel of the curriculum.
Some universities offer postgraduate courses on health, safety and the environment to cater to such needs.
Such courses have been well subscribed in recent times possibly because of the growing popularity of the higher risks chemical processing-related business.
In fact, if the teachings of the courses are adhered to, the risks to public safety would be very much reduced. The only problem is that implementing such risk mitigation procedures entails additional costs.
This is where unscrupulous companies try to work around spending extra money in order to increase their bottom line – which compromises the safety of not only their workers but also the public at large.
This is where the enforcement of government regulations become necessary.
The disposal of hazardous materials, also referred to as scheduled wastes, is strictly controlled. Companies are not supposed to dispose of such wastes the way they would normally do for non-hazardous materials. Instead, they have to send such wastes to special treatment facilities set up by the government. There is one in Bukit Nenas, Negri Sembilan.
Even the transport of such wastes requires special safety precautions.
Unfortunately, not all chemical companies are conscientious. It is therefore time for the government to closely monitor all movements of toxic and hazardous materials in the country.
Companies should be asked to regularly declare and account for the amounts of such materials that they receive, store, process and dispose of so the government can keep tabs. This is still not happening
The truth is, there are many chemical companies that are responsible and do not flout regulations. These are classified as Responsible Care companies.
They adhere closely to all prescribed procedures to safeguard public safety. It is the illegal and non-compliant ones that give the business a bad name.
The Academy of Sciences Malaysia has established a task force to promote responsible care in high-risk business sectors like mining, chemical processing and the like.
The other way chemical companies are tarnished in the public eye is through irresponsible writing in the media.
These are mainly articles and opinions shared that do not consider the facts. Most are based on hearsay and misdirected emotion.
Recent ill-informed writing on the rare earths industry is a case in point. The articles and opinions are not based on facts. Some equate wastes from rare earth processing with nuclear wastes, which is absolutely absurd.
There are also articles that equate the rare earths processing plant Lynas, Kuantan, with the unfortunate Asian Rare Earths experience in Perak.
The fact is, they both involve two vastly different starting materials and different processing methods.
There are many things that we can learn from Lynas. As a company dealing with chemicals, Lynas has demonstrated exemplary professionalism when it comes to the management of wastes.
This explains why the company has been getting awards for being a truly responsible care company.
Instead of harassing Lynas, the authorities should instead be showcasing the company as a model for others to emulate as a responible chemical processing business.
PROF DATUK DR AHMAD IBRAHIM
Fellow, Academy of Sciences Malaysia