Penang confounded by reports of high metal levels in water

A fish farm in Teluk Bahang.

GEORGE TOWN: Authorities in Penang say they are at a loss over reports claiming that higher-than-normal levels of metals have been detected in the state’s northeastern waters, with an environmental official telling FMT that the water in the area appears fine.

The claims of high levels of nickel, lead and cadmium were made by marine researchers from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), who recently told The Star that such concentrations could have a negative effect on marine life.

However, a source at the Department of Environment (DoE) said the water in the area appears normal.

USM’s Aileen Tan, who runs the Centre for Marine and Coastal Studies (Cemacs) at the Penang National Park off Teluk Bahang, said she had found nickel concentrations to be 944% higher than usual, while lead concentrations were 184% higher and cadmium 32% higher.

DoE officers taking samples at a fish farm off the waters of Teluk Bahang, following claims that many fish have been dying.

But a DoE investigation into the matter showed normal levels of these metals in the area.

The DoE report said checks at the waters off Cemacs and at several fish farms nearby showed that the pH parameters and dissolved oxygen levels meet the Malaysia Marine Water Quality Standard and Index or MMWQSI.

Waters in the Teluk Bahang area recorded Class 2 standards, which is good for fisheries and mariculture. Class 1 standards are usually found in sensitive marine habitats.

The total dissolved oxygen levels meanwhile were at Class 1, with two readings showing 8.12 and 6.91 according to checks on May 14.

Despite these findings, the DoE assured that it would look into claims by fish farmers that their fish were dying.

A fish farmer in Teluk Bahang holding up two dead fish during a check by the DoE.

“We will meet the USM marine researchers soon for a discussion,” the report added, noting that no dead fish had been found in Teluk Bahang since 2002.

“This is the first time somebody has reported dead fish at fish farms operating in Teluk Bahang.”

Penang Environment Committee chairman Phee Boon Poh told FMT that his team had been trying to locate the source of the elevated levels of metals found by the USM researchers.

He said nickel and cadmium are commonly found in batteries, but that no battery-making industries are located in the Teluk Bahang and Tanjung Bungah regions.

“We have combed through the entire areas, looking at rivers and taking samples. We were forced to use a deduction method where we go in reverse to find the source,” he said.

Authorities are trying to determine how these spots on the surface of the water might be affecting marine life at a fish farm in Teluk Bahang.

“But we remain surprised and curious as we have yet to find any factors that would lead to this high metals phenomenon.”

Phee said the government had come up with several theories on why there might be such high levels of metals in the area.

He said the first scenario being explored is the indiscriminate dumping of used batteries by passing merchant vessels from the Melaka Strait crossing over to the North Channel.

The second is an excess of growth chemicals in fish food, usually used by marine fish farms which form a big industry in the state.

He added that the researchers’ discovery of significantly lower oxygen levels could point to algal blooms or red tide algae which deplete oxygen in the water.

On the other hand, he said, the situation could be due to the sunken ships lying in Penang’s waters. He said the Russian cruiser Zhemchug, which was attacked by the Germans 105 years ago, lies in the North Channel.

More recently, he added, Hong Kong cargo vessel Xin Yi Yi had sunk on July 26, 2018 after crashing into existing shipwrecks off the southern coast of the island.

“The Hong Kong barge was supposed to have been taken out for repairs, but nothing happened,” he said.

“These are the only presuppositions we can come up with to explain why the metal levels are so high in our waters, as claimed by the USM expert.”