NIBONG TEBAL (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The reek of dung pervades the air in a gated community on the mainland of Penang, where several thousand residents live only about 100m from a cluster of pig, chicken and duck farms.
Rapid development in South Seberang Prai, especially near the second Penang bridge, has put residential communities within a stone's throw of the farms in Valdor.
"If only you can put the smell in your newspaper so that others will know what we are going through," lamented one resident.
Not only the residents are affected. The groundwater pollution level is so high that it threatens the marine environment and seafood production, as the effluent run-off from the farms flows into the sea not too far away.
Unfortunately, although an expert says the waste management is relatively simple, the state government cannot do much at the moment to compel the farms to shape up or ship out.
Seberang Prai Municipal Council president Datuk Rozali Mohamud admitted the 43 pig and 57 poultry farms in Valdor were "delinquent".
"We check on them every month. When they break the licensing conditions and get fined, they clean up for a while but start being dirty again after some time," he said.
The residents here say they were forced to lead an isolated life.
"We don't invite friends to our homes. We will never hold parties here," said resident R. Sargunan, 38.
"We were chided by friends and relatives for buying homes so near the farms."
A team from The Star met several residents in Valdor, who have formed an action group to call for corrective action on the pollution.
But the pungent smell is everywhere, even in the air-conditioned rooms of the well-built homes in the gated community.
It is not just the smell.
Sargunan said the neighbourhood faces a constant invasion of flies.
"Every window is closed. We even keep the windows closed when we are cooking, or we will be surrounded by flies," he said.
He said he bought his two-storey link house for RM555,000 (S$187,000) two years ago.
His home is just 200m from the cluster of farms, separated by a railway track.
"I had no idea I was so close to them. Before I bought my house, I read on the Internet about people complaining about the smell.
"I asked the sales people. They told me the farms would be relocated soon or they will implement a closed farming system.
"But after two years, nothing has changed.
"Even our laundry smells like pig dung after it dries," Sargunan added.
A property agent whose number was on a for rent sign outside one vacant house said the rental was RM700 monthly.
This is surprisingly low considering the construction quality and the close proximity of the second Penang bridge, just 5km away.
Another resident, Jack Chew, 35, lives about 500m from the farms, but said the distance does nothing to lessen the reek.
"The smell is always worse at night when the breeze tends to blow from the farms.
"We have been smelling it every night for the last two years," Chew said.
He said the action group will petition the state government for action.
"Why approve residential development here and do nothing about the farms?
"The nearest home is only about 100m from the pig farms. Shouldn't there be a buffer?" Chew asked.
There is pending legislation that could help, but it is apparently tangled in red tape.
The Penang Pig Farming Enactment 2016 cannot be enforced because the detailed licensing regulations have yet to be approved, said State Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Committee chairman Dr Afif Bahardin.
"The Pig Farming Licensing regulations are still under second revision by the state legal adviser," he said in a statement last week, in response to a Malay daily report on Feb 28 about fishermen who complained that raw pig waste was flowing into the sea from rivers.
"Farms that exceed permissible (effluent) levels will have their livestock transfer permits revoked," Dr Afif said, explaining that without the permit, they would not be able to sell their livestock.
Dr Afif had earlier said that by next year, the state aimed to make all livestock farmers practise closed farming systems, which include waste treatment and having a 200m buffer zone from residential zones.
Signs of groundwater pollution from the farms are evident in a canal that flows from Valdor to Bandar Cassia, near the second bridge toll plaza.
Two residents have taken water samples from the canal.
"We will have tests done and show it to the Veterinary Services Department ourselves," said Jack Chew, one of the two.
In 2015, The Star reported that the Water Quality Index of this canal had 94 times more ammoniacal nitrogen than a Class Five (severely polluted) river.
The biological oxygen demand (BOD) reading was 187, while chemical oxygen demand (COD) was 721.6 - indicators that the ecosystem is "all gone", said environmental consultant Patrick Tan.
Even a typical sewage pond's COD is around 200, he added.
COD and BOD are measures used to determine the effect effluents will have on bodies of water.
"At that level (721.6), the ecosystem of the canal and the river it feeds will be all gone. No fish can survive," he said yesterday when shown the analysis of a canal flowing out of the farms in Valdor.
Tan, an environmental consultant for over 20 years, pointed out that although the pollution may not directly harm human life, it was "devastating to the environment and affects food production".
The canal flows for only 3.8km before reaching the second bridge toll plaza. It also splits and flows into the sea via Sungai Jawi.
There are many fish farms about 3km from Sungai Jawi's estuary, off Pulau Aman and Pulau Gudung.
Tan said the pollution can also bring long-term damage to the marine environment.
"South Seberang Prai is the most polluted part of Penang. There are many other environmental issues (involved)," Tan said.
He said the biological waste produced by the farms is relatively simple to treat.
"Just have treatment ponds that are properly aerated. Make sure bacteria is growing healthily and the waste can be discharged safely in about three days," he said.