Work with local councils on environmental issues, activists urge DoE

Activists cite the toxic pollution in Sungai Kim Kim, Johor, as an example of a situation that would have benefited from better coordination between the DoE and local authorities. (Bernama pic)

PETALING JAYA: Environmentalists have urged the Department of Environment (DoE) to work closely with local authorities to better monitor environmental issues in any given area.

Malaysian Nature Society executive director IS Shanmugaraj suggested a “smart partnership” where local councils can assist the DoE in detecting environmental issues in their respective districts.

“Local councils are the ones who hold the keys to factory licences,” he told FMT. “They are the ones who can trace which of these businesses comply with regulations by tracking the permits they issue.”

What local councils lack, on the other hand, is environmental education, he added.

“This is where the DoE needs to come in: to train each local council, equip them with knowledge so that they can detect and prevent a problem from happening instead of waiting until it is too late.”

Recent environment-related issues have seen blame laid on the housing and local government ministry, as the issuance of certain permits fall under local authorities.

Shanmugaraj said municipal councils and city halls must be environmentally savvy, and that the DoE must “work smart”.

“Why increase enforcement within the DoE when each local council already has an environmental unit? Instead of spending money, work together,” he said.

He gave the example of the wildlife department, which he said cooperates with the armed forces to catch poachers.

“The special task force unit has the expertise to manoeuvre the forest. But even there, cost is incurred,” he added.

Shanmugaraj said local authorities would have the advantage as they are aware of the goings-on in their districts.

“If they team up with the DoE, the department will have more people eyeing environmental issues.”

He acknowledged that in many cases, the standard response would be to wait for action from the DoE. This, he said, is where environmental knowledge would come in handy for local authorities.

“If every local council is equipped with their own environmental knowledge, they could at least start working on the problem.

“Like Kuala Lumpur. It is so big, but even though they have an environmental unit, they can’t cope and they don’t have an equal say as the DoE,” he said.

Shanmugaraj suggested that government agencies like the police department be roped into addressing environmental issues as well.

“At the end of the day, only the police can arrest people,” he said. “So why not equip the police with the knowledge to detect environmental crimes?”

He recalled a unit in the police department which he said had been tasked with looking into environmental issues. “Bring that back.”

Even personnel in the customs department should be taught to monitor environmental issues, he said, noting recent headlines about the import of waste into the country.

Environmentalist Anthony Tan agreed that the DoE should join hands with local authorities and government agencies, and even business and civil society groups.

For the DoE, he said, enforcement appeared to be the “weak link” as the department is limited by the provisions in the Environmental Quality Act 1974, in Part III Licences and Part IV Prohibition and Control of Pollution.

“The DoE has to refer to the conditions stipulated in the licences – whether emissions or pollutants are treated before discharge within the acceptable standard, failing which then fines or court proceedings can be brought against the operator,” he said.

He said better coordination between the department, local authorities and government agencies could be used as a platform to educate the public and businesses on what should be done to reduce the risk of heavy pollutants being released into the water, air and ground.

Referring to the toxic pollution which took place in Sungai Kim Kim, Johor, he said the situation could have been better handled if the DoE had coordinated well with the local authorities.