JOHOR BARU • Toxic waste has been dumped into Johor's Sungai Kim Kim in the last 10 years and not just in the recent incident, said Malaysian Nature Society vice-president Vincent Chow yesterday.
He came to this conclusion after conducting two studies there in 2014 and 2016, he said, and found that some stretches of the river had become shallow and its waters black and bereft of fish.
Mr Chow made the comments about the river in the Pasir Gudang area even as the authorities continued yesterday with clean-up operations after toxic chemicals were dumped into the waterway last week, sickening thousands of people who inhaled noxious fumes from the waste.
The government on Wednesday shut 111 schools as a precautionary measure, and these remained shut yesterday.
The waters of Sungai Kim Kim discharges into the Strait of Johor, just north of Pulau Ubin.
Yesterday, 780 new cases of people sickened by the fumes were registered at a medic base at the Pasir Gudang Indoor Stadium, bringing the total affected to 3,555 cases.
I believe that illegal waste dumping has been going on for years, making this river a ticking time bomb that led to this incident, caused by chemical reactions due to the recent heat and low tide.
MALAYSIAN NATURE SOCIETY VICE-PRESIDENT VINCENT CHOW
"Local fishermen say the river used to have a lot of fish but now it has turned black and smelly," Mr Chow said. "I believe that illegal waste dumping has been going on for years, making this river a ticking time bomb that led to this incident, caused by chemical reactions due to the recent heat and low tide."
He said the incident is a wake-up call for the state government to come up with a framework to better protect the environment. This could include Johor agencies working with non-governmental organisations and stakeholders such as fishing communities.
He said Sungai Kim Kim was not the only polluted river in Pasir Gudang, pointing to Sungai Tengkorak and Sungai Jelutong in the Permas area nearby as waterways that had also become dumping grounds for waste.
Asked how long it would take to clear Sungai Kim Kim, Mr Chow said it would take a long time.
He added that the river was heavily polluted as the chemicals had seeped into the mud.
The incident angered many Malaysians and the federal Parliament on Thursday debated whether the government should declare an emergency for the Pasir Gudang area.
Johor's outspoken Crown Prince Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim late on Thursday said in a series of tweets: "Since the first day, an emergency should have been declared and residents temporarily evacuated elsewhere until it was guaranteed safe."
He added: "Two thousand people affected and no need to declare an emergency. Wow. Amazing."
Visiting the area on Thursday, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said: "The community here must view it as a serious matter but... everything is under control."
Asked if a state of emergency needed to be declared, he said: "It has not reached that level. We do not need to declare a state of emergency or evacuate residents. We just need to be cautious."
The federal government has approved a one-off RM8 million (S$2.7 million) allocation for clean-up works, adding to the RM6.4 million being disbursed by Johor state.
The Singapore authorities said on Thursday that they have not detected anomalies in the Republic's air and water quality following the Pasir Gudang incident, adding that they will continue to monitor the situation closely.
They also said that seawater quality in the vicinity of Pulau Ubin was within normal levels on Thursday.
The statement was jointly issued by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority, the National Environment Agency, national water agency PUB and the Singapore Civil Defence Force.
THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK