Residents near huge illegal dumpsite in Kapar 'waiting to exhale'
This is the first of a two-part article on an enormous illegal dumpsite in Kapar, Klang. The first part explores the nearby residents’ concerns about the dumpsite’s effects on their health and how a perfect storm of Covid-19 and greed caused the heap of trash to grow to its current size.
KLANG - By the time Mohamad Mishan Md Nor went to see his doctor at the Tengku Ampuan Rahimah Hospital here for the seventh time last year, he realised he was being poisoned - slowly but surely.
He had developed breathing problems and was first admitted to the hospital in June 2021. He was discharged but soon found himself sick again. He was readmitted the following month. The cycle repeated itself until his last admission in December last year.
At first, the 61-year-old thought his heart or even Covid-19 was the cause. But the doctor soon disabused him of the notion. His heart was not the cause and he had tested negative for Covid-19 each time.
It was something in the air, the doctor told him. But her suggested remedy floored him.
"She told me to move (to another place). How can I move? I don’t have any other property,” he told Bernama.
The only other solution was to figure out the cause. Amidst the blue skies, abundant green foliage and little traffic where he lived in Blok AC, Kampung Sungai Serdang in Kapar, a dark spectre was lurking. Incidentally, when he fell ill, his neighbours in Kampung Tok Muda, Kampung Tambak Jawa and surrounding areas - located about seven kilometres from the coast - were getting sick as well.
And it was not due to Covid-19.
There were clues. The residents described to Bernama how the air in their area became smokey at night - it still does - leading them to believe someone was illegally burning trash.
They soon traced the smoke to an illegal dumpsite nearby, located past a chicken farm under and next to the Tenaga Nasional Bhd (TNB) electrical transmission pylons, close to the Kapar-Kuala Selangor border. There was smoke coming from the site and in the past, the fire department had been summoned to put out fires.
But what the residents saw this time shocked them. What was a "dirty little” open secret among Kapar residents a few years before the pandemic had grown into a "dirty big” open secret. Following the nationwide lockdowns imposed in 2020 and 2021 to stem the spread of Covid-19, the illegal dumpsite had grown exponentially.
"This dumpsite has been around for at least five to six years. But it was quite small then. Before this, it was the height of a car. Now, look. It’s almost 10 metres tall,” said Mohd Masrobi Zakaria, a resident of Kampung Sungai Serdang, pointing to the mound of trash.
Estimates currently put the dumpsite at about two stories high and as big as five to eight football pitches.
To get to the dumpsite, one needs to head towards the Lay Hong Feedmill chicken farm at Batu 14, Kapar. Standing near the entrance to the farm is a foreign worker from Bangladesh, who runs soap water over the tyres of every heavy vehicle passing by. The farm itself lies on the left side of the road and is fenced off.
Past the chicken farm, the road soon turns into a dirt road. Heavy foliage obscuring the view on both sides of the road soon gives way to piles of rubbish: some blue plastic drums are tossed to the side like broken dolls and clumps of ashy black substance spill forth from white canvas sacks amid other types of trash.
Finally, the possibly nine-metre-high rubbish heap comes into view. It is massive but to the jaded, it may not be as bad as pictures of dumps in some developing countries. Until one steps out of the car.
Underfoot, the ground is bouncy, reminiscent of the floor of playgrounds at preschools. Upon closer inspection, what looked like soil was actually small multicoloured dots of rubber and plastic. This "hill” entirely consists of trash, causing experts to estimate the amount of rubbish at about 30,000 to 50,000 metric tonnes.
"This is industrial waste. It’s totally shredded,” opined a waste management expert who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.
"It looks like dirt and once mixed with the dirt, it is hard to trace.”
Most of the waste is industrial. In the middle of the heap are scores of Tetra Paks from a dairy company. At another spot at the side of the main heap are two huge bundles of colourful rubber gloves. And, mixed with the industrial waste are some construction waste and small amounts of household waste.
The smell of burnt plastic permeates the air. It does not stink but there are fumes. Everyone is masked but that has not stopped visitors from feeling nauseous while and after visiting the site.
The likely culprit lies at the far end of the trash site, where a line of palm trees demarcates the border between a plantation and open land. Although no fire can be seen, smoke bubbles out of the trash.
The waste management experts Bernama spoke to said the smoke may not be due to open burning of the trash but instead could be combustion due to internal heat or scavengers burning rubber casing while looking for copper.
All agreed the situation with the dumpsite was serious. One expert described the site as "one of the worst” he has ever seen, making it a dangerous place to be in, let alone to live close to.
Environmental experts are concerned the illegal dumpsite is situated so close to residential areas and the coast. Being unauthorised, the dumping is uncontrolled and unregulated, polluting the air, soil and water, and endangering the public.
Among many of their worries is the continuous plume of smoke, visible on Google Maps, coming from the trash. There is also the explosion hazard associated with landfill gas.
Solid waste management expert Prof Dr P. Agamuthu from the Jeffrey Sachs Centre on Sustainable Development at Sunway University said it is usually hard to put out such fires as the methane gas would keep feeding it.
On top of that, the gas is dangerous to breathe in.
"The biggest problem is the methane that the landfill gas (60 percent methane and 30 percent carbon dioxide) will be releasing. What happens if there are residential areas nearby, that’s not so good because the wind will blow this landfill gas towards the residential area,” he said.
The side-effects of short-term exposure to landfill gas include coughing; irritation of the eyes, nose and throat; headache; nausea; and breathing difficulties, which can worsen the condition of people with asthma. Long-term exposure includes loss of coordination, nausea and vomiting. High concentrations of the gas can cause death.
Methane also contributes to global warming.
Another big concern is leachate, which is a hazardous liquid and by-product of municipal waste. They pose a significant danger to the public and can cause stomach disorders, blood disorders, congenital disabilities and even cancer.
"My suspicion is that it will definitely flow into the sea because the sea is on lower ground,” said Agamuthu.
Solid Waste and Public Cleansing Management Corporation (SWCorp) Federal Territories director Ummi Kalthum Shuib told Bernama that legal landfills would have pipes to collect and funnel the leachate to a treatment plant that would render it safe for consumption and for the environment.
"Fish can live in the water after treatment,” she said.
But without collection or treatment, the leachate would get into the ground and contaminate the water supply. In this case, the fear is not misplaced as the illegal dumpsite is situated close to the coast.
The residents living near the dumpsite would likely not have been in this predicament if it were not for Covid-19. The perfect storm of pandemic restrictions and greed came together to make matters worse.
Ummi Kalthum said in her experience, unscrupulous companies took advantage of the lockdowns and the lack of witnesses to dump trash in illegal sites in order to cut corners and maximise profits.
"Some are unlicensed. So these unlicensed waste collectors look for illegal places to dump (their waste). The cost of going to legal dumpsites is too high,” she said.
It costs RM55 to send 1,000 metric tonnes of waste to the Jeram sanitary landfill, which is about 14 km away from the illegal dump site. Since construction and industrial waste can be on the voluminous and heavy side, the fees can add up quickly.
"(The lockdown) sort of has promoted illegal dumping ... But now things are back to normal,” said Agamuthu.
The residents are not necessarily enthused about the "return to normal”, however. Normal to them means a return to the status quo, with little to show for their effort. They told Bernama they had filed complaints numerous times with various agencies and representatives since as far as two decades ago but any action taken has been discrete, few and short-lived.
At a recent community meeting with environmentalists, Kampung Sungai Serdang village chief Mohd Rizan Poniran sounded calm but frustrated when he said the situation has become untenable.
"It is now even more critical because as time goes by, the more the trash that accumulates there,” he said.
He added that more and more residents, especially the elderly and children as well as asthma sufferers, were getting sick.
Bernama reached out to local, state and federal authorities on the issue of illegal dumping as well as TNB about the illegal dumpsite in Kapar.
Most were not immediately able to comment or chose to reserve comment. Klang Municipal Council member Datuk Seri Azizi Ayob, who represents the area, told Bernama he would be visiting the site soon.
Member of Parliament for Kuala Selangor Datuk Seri Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad, who represents the residents of the villages concerned, told Bernama the issue was a "time bomb”.
"I have to go down and really look at it. These are chronic problems that have never been solved. Look at that smoke and look at how unhealthy it is,” he said, referring to videos and photos of the dumpsite.
Member of Parliament for Kapar Halimah Ali did not provide any comment while Sementa assemblywoman Dr Daroyah Alwi did not respond to requests for a comment.
Residents and community activists are not surprised by the hodgepodge of responses, considering it reflected the way the dumpsite issue was being handled. After years of waiting for effective action, many have reached their breaking point.
"We have the evidence. We have the people reporting. We have photos. Officers have visited the site. We even have sick people. So what are we waiting for?” asked Akmar Azizi Saaidin, a resident of Kampung Sungai Serdang.
"Till death,” quipped Mohamad Mishan.
The Klang Municipal Council (MPK) is planning an "aggressive” new initiative to combat the illegal dumping of waste by recruiting netizens as foot soldiers and using social media in the war against illegal dumping.
MPK corporate communications director Norfiza Mahfiz said in a statement that they are intensifying the anti-dumping campaign by increasing awareness.
"This time MPK wants to increase awareness in a serious and aggressive manner. We will use social media to broadcast the behaviour of individuals who lack civic consciousness,” she said.
She added the public may send videos or photos of violations and alleged violators to a soon-to-be-announced platform.
She also said people’s lack of discipline and disregard for cleanliness are among the reasons why waste management is still a huge issue in Klang.
"This indifferent attitude and irresponsibility can create bigger issues in the future, as well as jeopardise residents’ health. If nothing is done, Klang will possibly come to be known as the ‘trash district’,” she said.
Norfiza said MPK’s Environmental Services Department will also continuously monitor certain locations the council has identified and intensify enforcement operations against illegal dumping of waste.
"We hope to gain the public’s cooperation and support to ensure success,” she added. - BERNAMA