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Pollution Trail: Hazardous, Plastic, and Rare Earth Wastes That Affected These Three Communities

Pollution affects us all on multiple levels, including our environment, health, and livelihoods. The disastrous incidents of pollution in Pasir Gudang, Jenjarom, and Bukit Merah demonstrate just how severe these effects can be on entire communities. Pollution has changed their lives forever, and even today, they continue to be haunted by these dark episodes.

These are their stories.

#1: Pasir Gudang – Illegal Chemical Dumping Causes A Health Disaster

On the morning of March 6th, 2019, an unassuming lorry drove down to Pasir Gudang, an industrial town in Johor. Its destination was Sungai Kim Kim, a river that snakes its way through the town. 

The next day, 35 individuals – primarily students – were sent to the hospital after inhaling toxic gases. This figure quickly escalated to staggering heights, with more than 2,700 people falling ill within just one week[1]. Ultimately, a total of 2,775 individuals – predominantly schoolchildren – were hospitalised, leading to the closure of 110 schools in proximity to the river[2].

As it turned out, the lorry had been illegally dumping toxic chemical waste into Sungai Kim Kim beneath a bridge connecting Taman Pasir Putih and Taman Kota Masai. The chemicals unlawfully dumped into the river included marine oil waste, acrylonitrile, and acrolein[3].

The lorry driver, N Maridass, was fined RM100,000 in 2023 following investigations that found he had released scheduled waste into Sungai Kim Kim using a lorry and semi-trailer without a licence from the environment department. Meanwhile, P Tech Resources Sdn Bhd was fined RM320,000 after pleading guilty to failing to maintain the air pollution control system at its premises, among other charges. Two of its directors, Yap Yoke Liang and Wang Jing Chao, were charged with conspiring with Maridass[2].

Following the incident, contractors cleared 900 tonnes of toxic sludge and 1,500 metric tonnes of contaminated water from a 1.5km stretch of Sungai Kim Kim[4]. Although the river has since been declared safe by authorities, residents remain uncertain and continue to clamour for harsher punishments against the culprits as the impact of this incident is still felt today.

Mohd Rafee Abdullah says the effects of the pollution continue to impact the health of his 11-year-old daughter, Nur Akma Darisha Sofea.

My daughter is still undergoing follow-up treatment with a pulmonologist at the hospital. Her attendance at school fluctuates based on her health condition. I hope the government will provide ongoing medical assistance to alleviate the challenges we face. – Mohd Rafee Abdullah, Pasir Gudang resident[5]

#2: Jenjarom – A Town Smothered By Plastic

Source: BBC

It all began in the warmer months of 2018. Every night, after the clock struck midnight, Danial Tay would find himself assaulted by a horrid stench. No matter how tightly sealed his doors and windows were, the acrid smell would always find its way into his abode.

He later discovered that illegal recycling factories were the source of this malodour as they secretly burned plastic.

The smells started a while ago but got really bad around August [2018]. I started to feel unwell and I would keep coughing. I was really angry when I found out it was because of the factories. – Danial Tay, Jenjarom resident[6]

Illegal recycling factories such as these quickly sprang up after China banned the import of foreign plastic waste in 2017. With nowhere else to go, the waste – most of it originating from the UK, the US, and Japan – went straight to Malaysia instead. Within the first seven months of 2018 alone, a whopping 754,000 tonnes of plastic waste had been imported to our country[6]. Unfortunately for Danial and others in the area, Jenjarom was an ideal dumping ground for this waste due to its proximity to Port Klang, which is Malaysia’s largest port and the primary entry point for most of the country’s plastic imports.

Numerous illegal recycling plants took advantage of the growing plastic recycling industry which has been estimated to be worth over RM3 billion. According to the State Council, there were at least 33 illegal factories in Kuala Langat, which is the district Jenjarom is located in. Many of these illegal factories opted for the cost-free options of burying or burning any non-recyclable waste instead of proper disposal methods that are expensive. Unfortunately, it was the residents of Jenjarom who had to pay the price, as the burning of plastic releases toxic fumes[6].

Ngoo Kwi Hong, another resident of Jenjarom, stated that the fumes from the burning triggered such a violent cough that she even coughed up a blood clot.

I couldn’t sleep at night because it was so smelly. I became like a zombie, I was so tired. It was only later I found out there were factories surrounding my house – north, south, east, west. – Ngoo Kwi Hong, Jenjarom resident[6]

Belle Tan, who discovered an illegal factory just 1km from her house, shared about the impact it has had on her then 11-year-old son.

He got a really bad rash around his stomach, neck, legs and arms. His skin would keep peeling, even when we touched him it hurt. I was angry and scared for his health but what could I do? The smell was everywhere in the air. – Belle Tan, Jenjarom resident[6]

The community beseeched the local council and state government to do something about these plants. The residents’ activism finally bore fruit in July 2019 when local authorities shuttered 34 illegal recycling facilities in Kuala Langat[7].

Nevertheless, the process is sluggish. There are still 17,000 tonnes of rubbish that have been left behind in Jenjarom by those facilities[6], and numerous unauthorised recyclers have found ways to circumvent the temporary ban on imported scrap. They achieve this by classifying the scrap as a different type of plastic and smuggling it into the country.

#3: Bukit Merah – Irradiated By Rare Earth Elements

Source: Down To Earth

In 1982, Ng, a resident of Bukit Merah, was awarded a contract to dispose of radioactive waste from Mitsubishi Chemical’s newly established Asian Rare Earth refinery. Instead of disclosing that the waste he was hauling contained thorium – a carcinogenic radioactive material, the plant’s operators simply told him that it could be used as fertiliser. This failure to ensure employees were properly informed led to shockingly unsafe waste disposal practices.

At one time, we dug a pit near a river in Bukit Merah and buried the waste. Occasionally, lumps of wet thorium sludge would fall off the lorry and school children would walk pass [past] it. – Ng, Bukit Merah hauling operator[8]

Besides employees of the company unwittingly disposing of toxic waste in the fields and rivers of Bukit Merah, the state government had also given the company permission to create a disposal site near their village[9]. The indiscriminate dumping of radioactive waste resulted in the community experiencing increased rates of leukaemia, birth defects, infant deaths, congenital diseases, miscarriages, and lead poisoning in the years following the plant’s opening. At least 11 deaths due to blood poisoning, brain tumours, and leukaemia were documented by T. Jayabalan, a public health consultant who fought for the plant’s closure[8].

Almost as soon as the refinery started operations, residents began raising concerns about the foul odour and smoke emissions. S. Panchavarnam worked at a timber mill near the plant in 1987 and distinctly remembers enduring the foetid stench. She was pregnant at the time, and often fell ill. The pregnancy resulted in the birth of her daughter, Kasturi, who has faced health issues since she was born. Kasturi was born with only one kidney, a short neck, and low-set eyes. She continues to undergo treatment for persistent headaches.

The Mitsubishi factory has caused a lot of pain. We are suffering in silence. – S. Panchavarnam[8]

Following extensive public outcry, Mitsubishi Chemical finally shut down the factory in 1994[8]. Although the company did not admit responsibility for any illnesses, it agreed to donate $164,000 to schools in the community as part of an out-of-court settlement reached with the residents[10]. Meanwhile, the government has neither confirmed nor denied that radiation contamination occurred in the village[8].

Explore our sources:

  1. H. Chen. (2019). Pasir Gudang: How one quiet lorry sparked a toxic waste crisis. BBC. Link.
  2. FMT. (2023). Company, lorry driver fined over 2019 Sungai Kim Kim pollution. Link.
  3. The Straits Times. (2019). Pasir Gudang chemical spill: 6 things you need to know. Link.
  4. B. Tan. (2019). Environment minister declares Sungai Kim Kim safe, 900 tonnes of contaminant removed. Malay Mail. Link.
  5. Bernama. (2023). Sungai Kim Kim victims in Johor urge heavier penalties against culprits involved. Malay Mail. Link.
  6. Y. Tan. (2019). Plastic pollution: One town smothered by 17,000 tonnes of rubbish. BBC. Link.
  7. D. Mosbergen. (2019). She Wanted Her Town To Breathe Clean Air. She Got Death Threats Instead. HuffPost. Link.
  8. M. Jegathesan. (2012). Toxic legacy in Malaysia rare-earths village. Link.
  9. Consumers’ Association of Penang. (n.d.) Chronology of events in the Bukit Merah Asian Rare Earth development. Link.
  10. K. Bradsher. (2011). Mitsubishi Quietly Cleans Up Its Former Refinery. The New York Times. Link. Alternative link.

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