GEORGE TOWN: The Penang government today denied claims that it did not act on a warning by a group that could have averted a landslide in Bukit Kukus, which claimed the lives of nine and injured four last Friday.
State Public Works, Utilities and Flood Mitigation Committee chairman Zairil Khir Johari acknowledged that the state government had received a report from Penang Hills Watch (PHW) claiming that the site had caused mud floods. He said authorities had conducted a spot check on the site.
“Claims that complaints were not attended to are untrue. In fact, action was taken immediately in accordance with existing guidelines and standard operating procedures.
“The Penang state government reiterates that there is no excuse for non-compliance.
“The cause of the Bukit Kukus landslide must be uncovered, and a full investigation is underway. If there is evidence of professional negligence, those responsible will be held to account,” Zairil said at a press conference in Komtar today.
PHW, under the auspices of Penang Forum, said it had warned the state government and local authorities twice over Bukit Kukus and other areas in the state where hills were being cleared.
The first report on Bukit Kukus was made in 2017, and the more recent one just last month.
Zairil said the state government received PHW’s latest report on Sept 28 and conducted a spot check on the site 11 days later on Oct 8, led by the Drainage and Irrigation Department (DID), under Ops Lumpur. He said his office had even responded to PHW on Oct 4 by thanking the group.
He said upon visiting the site, many “irregularities” were found, including the absence of geotextile sheets which are used to reinforce and protect cut slopes.
Zairil said the team then issued a letter demanding that mitigation measures be taken within 14 days, failing which a stop-work order would be given.
“We followed our standard operating procedures. And as I said, the report was submitted to us through city council member Chee Heng Leng, who also had the power to order the council to conduct checks on the site.
“As far as I am concerned, under my jurisdiction, I can only check on the compliance of the project’s Erosion and Sedimentation Control Plan (ESCP).”
Many irregularities, but not under our jurisdiction
Penang DID northeast district engineer Nortillawati Osman said her team had only checked on one site on Oct 8, which was not the site involved in the landslide, as it was impossible to scour the entire hill expanse.
She said her team members went to the highest vista to observe the entire site. From there, they found many ESCP conditions were not complied with.
“We did not go to the area where the landslide occurred or even where the kongsi (workers’ cabin) was as it was not within our jurisdiction.
“We have written to the consultant engineers to provide geotextile sheets for all exposed slopes on the site so that it can be protected from mud floods in the future.
“We were not aware if there would be landslide or not and it is not under our purview,” she said.
Zairil meanwhile said jurisdiction for the maintenance of slopes fell under the city council’s geotechnical department.
When asked why other technical agencies were not involved, he said invitations were sent out but received no response, likely due to the “last minute” nature of the check.
“Of course, for that project they have independent checking engineers, consulting engineers, and self-regulations to follow. There is a second layer of protection there,” he added.
According to Zairil, the issues found by the DID included:
- Sediment pond, check dams and other components were not compliant with the approved ESCP. Stockpiles were not maintained well and could affect the flow of Sungai Relau during heavy rain, causing mud floods.
- A portion of topsoil was not covered with mulching or grass.
- Open slopes were not covered with geotextile sheets.
- Absence of silt fences at the slope.
On the possibility of a water source at the top of the hill and suggestions that it might have caused the landslide, the DID said it was too early to say.
Penang DID drainage and irrigation senior assistant director Amphai Ee Bau said according to the Penang Geographic Information System, there was a stream from the top, identified as Sungai Relau.
He said the river had many tributaries at the top of the hill which would be empty during the dry season.
“It would be a wrong assumption to say that this waterway is not a river, but when it rains it fills up. Maybe this has been overlooked. We are not sure and we have to rely on the investigation into the matter.
“There are many tributaries which will appear when it rains. Sometimes when we go there, we do not see them. They can appear from underground water sources,” he added.
Amphai said a comprehensive ESCP would be put in place before construction occurs near such areas, which takes into account tributaries outside the catchment area.
“In this case, when there are tributaries like this, they are usually canalised or diverted away from a risky area. You can never bury a river without a good explanation,” he said.