JOHOR BAHRU: Malaysia’s education ministry on Wednesday (Mar 13) ordered all 111 schools in Pasir Gudang to shut after a suspected chemical leak there left hundreds of people ill with methane poisoning.
As of 8pm on Wednesday, more than 940 people have sought treatment for shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, said Johor Health, Environment and Agriculture Committee chairman Sahruddin Jamal.
Health Minister Dzulkefly Ahmad refuted a viral report that a student had died due to the chemical pollution in Pasir Gudang.
“I want to stress that the viral report about the death of a victim is not true. There is no death,” he told a press conference at the State Disaster Management Operation Centre on Wednesday.
Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Minister Yeo Bee Yin also said that one of suspects involved in the case is expected to be charged on Thursday.
In a statement on his official Facebook page, Education Minister Maszlee Malik said: “Unfortunately, I was told today that the situation is getting more critical.
"I've ordered for all schools within a three-kilometre radius to be shut immediately. Teachers also don't need to be on duty because the situation is still dangerous.”
Ms Yeo said that she has been in contact with the Attorney-General on the possibility of bringing multiple charges against the suspect, due to the serious nature of the offence and inadequacy of the penalty under the Environment Quality Act.
Upon conviction, a person can be sentenced to a maximum of five years jail and fined RM500,000 (US$122,000) under Section 34B of the Environmental Quality Act 1974.
“As the Department of Environment has completed the investigation, we will go ahead and prosecute but it is not limited to this (environmental) law. The person can be charged under the Penal Code and, possibly, other laws too," she said.
Two schools - Sekolah Kebangsaan Taman Pasir Putih and Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Pasir Putih - were first ordered to shut on Mar 7, after students and school employees breathed in methane fumes from chemicals that were illegally dumped in the nearby Sungai Kim Kim.
Over the weekend, at least 82 people were hospitalised or sought treatment. Three men were detained.
A second wave of methane poisoning hit just hours after the two schools re-opened on Monday.
By Tuesday evening, 13 schools in Pasir Gudang were ordered to close, as hundreds suffered methane poisoning.
"CHEMICALS SHOULD HAVE BEEN DISPOSED OF EARLIER"
Johor Fire and Rescue Department’s director-general Mohammad Hamdan Wahid said on Wednesday that the second wave of poisoning would not have taken place if the dumped chemicals were immediately removed.
He said the authorities did not dispose of the chemicals after concluding that they were no longer reactive, and believed it was due to the costs involved.
“This was not a good decision. By right, it should have been disposed earlier," the director-general was quoted as saying by Malay Mail.
“Due to the current hot weather, the chemical emitted hazardous fumes again, which then spread via (the) wind and made more people sick."
Mr Mohammad Hamdan said the school closures were necessary as the current hot weather could trigger further chemical reactions.