State environment committee, DOE need to wake up in performing monitoring and enforcement duties

Weaknesses in environmental monitoring and enforcement of laws, measly fines for polluters, and a complete disregard of the environment by greedy companies create a recipe for repeat offences.

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Published by Business Today & The Star, image from Business Today.

The monitoring and enforcement responsibilities of the Selangor’s state environment, green technology, science, technology and innovation and consumer affairs committee, and the Department of Environment (DOE) have to be questioned on its capabilities to monitor and enforce the law.

Prevention of pollutant-caused water crises require everyone to do their part, with a renewed appreciation to a severely deteriorating ecological asset worthy of being treated under national security.

The law itself has to be reviewed to allow for adequate punishment to deter even the most cash-rich premises that can pay-to-get away, and consider either a ban or special conditions for site approvals at waterways.

However, weaknesses in environmental monitoring and enforcement, combined with measly fines for polluters, create a welcoming recipe for repeat offences. Economic pressures will exacerbate this situation as irresponsible and greedy companies ignore ethics, law and environmental impacts to cut costs.

It’s clear that regulatory enforcement against polluters needs to be greatly improved.

Although the Environmental Quality Act (EQA) 1974 specifies standards for effluent discharge upstream of raw water intake, the authorities should consider reviewing this – banning it altogether or only to be considered under the strictest of conditions or under special circumstances.

Malaysia is committed to UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) where environment is one of three key elements. River pollution in Malaysia threatens the lifeline to an immense range of aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity – one of the richest in the world. A shifted preference in favour of environmental protection over economic reasons is needed.

As for preventive punishment, a differentiation is needed between penalties for accidental release of pollutants (mismanagement, equipment failures), and repeat offenders. The last one calling for the strictest of punishment such as:

1. Charging perpetrators with the total cost of damages to the water treatment plants, clean-up costs, disruption to other industries, and water losses;

2. With immediate effect, halt the operations of all waste treatment and disposal businesses that do not have in place mandatory processes and steps to treat and dispose waste according to DOE requirements, until these have been met;

3. Charging the culprits the total cost incurred from the failure to reinstate the necessary changes to the need for demolishment of the premise;

4. Jail time with community service. As the issue raises significant public anger, considerations on method of supervision and choice of community service type and location will be needed to prevent the public from imposing street justice on the perpetrators; and

5. Permanent revocation of license to operate.

Denial of water services to their registered address – although appear to be a fitting punishment – may affect their families, spouse, and children who may not be involved in the matter.

From the operational preventive standpoint – and assuming resource limitations to be a major factor instead of lackadaisical attitude – the DOE can be empowered with the use of new technologies and the improvement of monitoring and detection practices such as the following:

1. In-situ “live” monitoring using smart sensors at designated effluent discharge points, which adopts the existing monitoring practice of air emissions in contrast to liquid discharge/effluents, which are still randomly checked and self-monitored;

2. Include flow-rate as a parameter to be measured at those discharge points. Significant changes/fluctuations may indicate attempt to bypass the designated discharge points. This applies to manufacturing plants with proper production processes;

3. Apply 4IR technologies and digital tools. The resulting ‘Big data’ generated can be enhanced with machine learning at DOE central HQ to further increase rate of detection and reduce false positive cases;

4. Implement high-mobility surveillance for ‘spot-checks’ using technologies such as drones. Perhaps the excitement of flying drones would address any lackadaisical attitude from authorities, and incite new fear for would-be polluters; and

5. Tech-assisted surveillance may be focused in industrial sites with high concentrations of low-tech factories/plants without fixed in-out mass balances (such as the machinery maintenance factory, workshops, etc.), while properly implemented measures of the proposed improved live monitoring practices should to certain degree take care of more process/manufacturing/production-oriented industrial sites.

Even with the measures above, by-pass activities may still slip through the suggested measures, and the resulting pollution upstream of water treatment plants – which can occur in any part of the country – has to be detected via a large-scale remote sensing technology such as the use of satellites.

This is already implemented to monitor palm plantations throughout the country whereby in-situ monitoring is not feasible. It may be worth exploring the potential to expand it for water pollution detection especially considering that water quality/water source issue should be treated as a national security matter.

Data generated from satellite monitoring can be put through imaging analytics with machine learning capabilities to provide high-tech nationwide detection capabilities to DOE.

In cases where all of the above legal and operational preventive measures fail and upstream pollutants reach water treatment plants (WTP), strategies for improved management of water supply disruption may also be considered.

This may include additional backup sources through a bypass/transfer connection of treated water from the nearest water treatment plants. Although it’s likely that issues of cost, organisational politics and territorial jurisdiction would pose a problem to such measures.

Applaud should be given to the WTPs, especially the front-liners working day and night to overhaul and clean all parts from pollutants. But the competency and integrity of regulatory authorities are in question. Taking into account water disruptions in Selangor since 2019 have occurred with regular frequencies, with pollution as the major cause (38%), followed by power supply trouble, and upgrading work (both at 23% each), with drop of water level and technical issue (both at 8% each), the people expect severe punishment to be laid down on offenders, and that serious steps would be taken to prevent another pollution-caused water crisis.

Ahmad Ameen Mohd Kamal is Head of Science and Technology at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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