JOHOR BAHRU: What started out as an isolated incident of illegally dumping chemicals into a Johor river has escalated into a wave of methane poisoning cases, with more than 2,700 people taken ill.
The Malaysian education ministry has closed all 111 schools in Pasir Gudang, while the federal parliament debated a motion on whether to declare a state of emergency, only to later decide against it.
Here’s what we know so far:
Mar 6: A tanker lorry believed to be from an illegal tyre recycling factory dumps 20 to 40 tonnes of chemical waste into Sungai Kim Kim.
“The oily substance is believed to be oil waste commonly used in marine engine compressors and is considered scheduled waste that needs to be disposed of properly under the law,” says Johor Department of Environment’s director Mohammad Ezzani Mat Salleh.
Mar 7: Thirty-five people, mostly students, are hospitalised after breathing in methane.
Two schools - Sekolah Kebangsaan Taman Pasir Putih and Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Pasir Putih – situated around 0.5km from the dump site, are ordered shut.
Mar 8: Initial cleaning works inadvertently worsens the chemical reaction, as the contractor engaged was not experienced in dealing with chemical waste.
Authorities did not dispose of the chemicals in the river after concluding that they were no longer reactive. The decision was also taken due to the costs involved.
Mar 10: Three men are said to have been detained, including two factory owners and a worker who are all in their 50s.
Mar 11: The two affected schools reopen but a second wave of methane poisoning hits. More than 200 people are affected.
This is “unexpected and regrettable”, says Johor chief minister Osman Sapian.
READ: Pasir Gudang methane poisoning: 2 schools closed again after students report breathing difficulties
The Sultan of Johor Ibrahim Iskandar orders the authorities to act against those responsible.
“As a result of the irresponsible act, hundreds of people, including students and pupils, had to be rushed to hospital … These are my people and I will not let this continue. I urge all government authorities to quickly arrest and penalise the offenders,” says the sultan.
Mar 13: The education ministry orders all 111 schools in Pasir Gudang to close, while the number of people affected crosses the 500 figure.
Health Minister Dzulkefly Ahmad refutes a viral report that a student has died.
Mr Osman, the chief minister, says the situation is under control and there is no need to declare a state of emergency in the area. "I don't expect the situation to worsen. Our main concern now is to complete the cleaning works as quickly as possible."
Meanwhile, the federal government allocates RM6.4 million (US$1.56 million) to clean up a 1.5-km stretch of the river.
READ: No anomalies in Singapore's air and water quality, say authorities amid methane poisoning in Pasir Gudang
Mar 14: More than 2,700 people are affected by the incident.
The federal parliament approves a motion to debate whether a state of emergency should be declared. However, lawmakers decide against the move.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad says there is no need to declare a state of emergency, while reminding all quarters to exercise more caution.
“No … it has not reached that stage (where an emergency has to be declared). There is no need for any evacuation, but we must be careful," Dr Mahathir says, when asked if there is a need to declare an emergency for Pasir Gudang or evacuation of residents there.
“Those mobilised to contain the situation must also be prepared to handle the problem,” he tells reporters after visiting victims who have been admitted to the Sultan Ismail Hospital.
The situation has stabilised and cleaning works at the site are ongoing and should be completed within a week, the New Straits Times reported Mr Osman as saying.
The Johor Sultan pledges RM1 million (US$244,700) to help aid efforts.
The crown prince of Johor, Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim, hits out at the authorities over their handling of the incident.
In a series of tweets, he says: “Since the first day (Mar 7), an emergency should have been declared and residents temporarily evacuated elsewhere, until it was guaranteed safe.”
Mar 15: The police say no arrests have been made thus far, despite earlier reports that three men have been nabbed.
“We did not say it. There were other parties that mentioned that, but the police do not have any arrests,” says police chief Mohamad Fuzi Harun.