Malaysia: Batu Arang residents oppose building of incinerator in their town

The Batu Arang community does not want a proposed incinerator plant at their backyard, fearing health risks and pollution problems. The residents of this former coal-mining town on January 21 held a protest, the second one, at the local town hall, which was also attended by seven NGOs. 

Watch the video here.

Batu Arang, a town in Gombak District, Selangor, Malaysia, is located about 50 km from the capital Kuala Lumpur. The proposed Sultan Idris Shah (SIS) green energy plant, which includes the incinerator to be located at Lot 3847, is estimated to cost RM 4.5 billion (US$945 million). The incinerator, which has the capacity to burn and convert 2, 400 tons of waste daily, is slated to service six other local councils within Selangor. 

Ming, a resident of Kampung Batu Arang, said at the protest: “Clean air is a precious gift bestowed upon us by god, and the best part is that we don’t even have to pay taxes for it! It is a basic human right. Upon discovering their plans to build an incinerator here in Batu Arang, I couldn’t sleep for two weeks due to concerns about the future of my children and grandchildren. The construction of the incinerator has the potential to erase a century’s worth of history in our town and result in the loss of livelihoods, especially for the farmers.”

Ravish Shaken, another resident, said: “When there is an incinerator, numerous lorries carrying rubbish utilize our roads. Despite being informed that the lorries will not pass through this area, we are uncertain of the veracity of this statement, as laws and rules in Malaysia can change at any time. The drivers appear to make their own decisions and frequently pass through our small hometown, resulting in dirty roads, unpleasant odors, and the potential spread of diseases.

“Another aspect to consider is the fragility of the underground geology in our town, which includes underground tunnels and a significant amount of residual coal. This presents a risk of coal ignition and potential disaster if an incinerator were to burn rubbish at temperatures ranging from 700 to 800 degrees Celsius. It is crucial for us not to live in fear and worry about the long-term consequences.

“I believe it is unfair because they did not take the time to meet and engage with the local community, conduct surveys, or seek our opinions. We were not given the opportunity to provide input. There was no open dialogue between us and those in charge. We have not had any meetings with them. We have concerns about the operation of the facility, the use of the land, and transportation. None of these matters have been adequately explained to the residents here.”

Siew Shuen Thing, senior program manager, Greenpeace Southeast Asia, said: “It is unjust to place an undesirable mega waste facility in a remote town that will handle waste from seven other districts. The residents have the right to question the risks imposed on them by others. If the government cannot answer all of their questions, then the proposals for a WTE incinerator are neither justifiable nor legitimate.”

Incineration plants are also known as waste-to-energy (WTE) plants. The heat from the combustion generates superheated steam in boilers, and the steam drives turbogenerators to produce electricity.

Residents and NGO representatives at the town hall.

Albrecht Arthur N. Arevalo, climate and anti-incinerator campaigner, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), said that incineration can be thought of as a process involving three boxes. In the first box (furnace), hundreds of tons of waste are transformed into trillions of tiny particles and gases. The second box, equipped with air pollution control devices, aims to capture all these tiny particles and gases. Finally, in the third box (ash landfill), the captured pollutants must be properly disposed of.

“Incineration of every 100 tons of waste results in a concerning 30 tons of harmful ash,” Arevalo stated. “This toxic by-product is produced in two distinct areas: beneath the grate, where it’s referred to as bottom ash, and within the boilers and air pollution control apparatus, where it’s termed as fly ash. 

“In other words, incineration does not eliminate the need for landfills, as a separate landfill is still required to dispose of the ash produced.”

This raises another concerning question: “How does the incinerator affect our health?”

Dr. Jorge Emmanuel, adjunct professor, Silliman University, the Philippines, said the WTE processes release dioxins, which are among the most harmful chemical pollutants known to science. 

Dioxins belong to a group of 210 chemicals that include polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxin and dibenzofuran. These substances are highly toxic even in minuscule concentrations. A single small drop in a lake (at a concentration of one part per trillion) would be sufficient to cause toxicity.

Emmanuel explained: “Dioxins have a long-lasting impact on the environment. If dioxins are produced today and they fall on the ground, covered by 2 cm of soil, it can take anywhere between 10 to 40 generations for most of the dioxins to naturally degrade and disappear.” 

Given the close proximity of the proposed incinerator to residential areas, educational institutions, mosques, and Hindu temples, which are all situated within a radius of 700 meters to 2 kilometers from the proposed SIS green energy plant, residents are fearful of potential risks.

Emmanuel added: “The community may be exposed to health hazards such as leukemia, sarcoma and other forms of cancer, reproductive disorders, birth defects, miscarriages and so forth.” 

Wan Kian, a resident, said: “Firstly, I believe many Malaysians here are familiar with the governance practices of our government when it comes to factories and pollutants. Does the Malaysian government have existing regulations and governance in place for incinerators? If these regulations are not in place, anyone can construct an incinerator without adequate oversight. Hence, it is important to ensure that the operators of such facilities adhere to the rules and minimize the emission of toxins. Otherwise, it is our well-being that will bear the brunt of the consequences.

“Secondly, dioxin is not only toxic to humans but also to animals. For example, in France, the toxic levels in eggs are above the safety limit for human consumption. This means that not only are you breathing in toxic air, but you are also consuming toxic food. I appeal to the Batu Arang community who are currently quiet and laid back to come together and voice your objections on this incinerator. If people unite, we can achieve a lot. It’s not just about the incinerator.”

When asked “Will you relocate if the incinerator is built here?” Kong, a resident, replied: “At the age of 68, I have concerns about the construction of an incinerator in this area and its potential impact on air quality. If it takes three years to complete, I fear that I may not want to breathe the air here.

“I recently attended a symposium where I learned that incinerators not only pollute the air but also the ground and water. There have been cases in Europe where eggs within a five kilometers radius were contaminated by dioxins. Consuming local eggs, chicken, or any other contaminated produce can lead to illness, including cancer. According to experts from the U.S., testing for dioxins is extremely expensive. I don’t think I want to stay, although I love this place very much.”

Sulaiman, a resident, added: “We are not against development or the government, but we simply want the incinerator to be constructed in a different location. We have nowhere else to go. This is our home, and we must fight against the incinerator to protect it.”

Mageswari Sangaralingam, honorary secretary of Friend of the Earth, however said that an incinerator, even if built elsewhere, will have an adverse impact on people. “Our objective is to eliminate the presence of incinerators in Malaysia to ensure the well-being of all communities. The solution lies in achieving zero waste.”

Yuen Mei Wong, independent researcher and event convener (standing left).

Yuen Mei Wong, an independent researcher and the town hall event convener, said: “The strong opposition from local residents to the proposed incinerator in Selangor as a pressing concern has persisted over time. In the past two decades, the government has abandoned plans to construct similar plants in Broga, South Selangor, and Jinjang, North Kuala Lumpur.” 

After a relentless seven-year journey, Wong and her resilient community have triumphantly prevailed against the Broga incinerator plant. With this victory behind her, she implored the Batu Arang residents to persist and never surrender.

Froilan Grate, executive director, GAIA Philippines, concluded: “Eliminating the reasons for constructing an incinerator entail making the Batu Arang community zero waste, thus removing any justification for such a facility. This principle applies not only to Batu Arang but also to other communities.

“You must firmly assert that leaving your current home is not an option. Emphasize that this is your home, and the moment you contemplate leaving, you give them what they want. Therefore, it is essential to always fight for what you believe is right, and leaving should never be considered a viable option.”

Watch the video here.

All photos credit: Annjil Chong

Top photo: Batu Arang residents and NGO representatives.

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