How far should a wastepaper recycling factory be away from schools and houses? Banting residents and lawmakers disagree. In this second of two stories, Aurora Tin reports arguments from both sides of the fence.
In Banting, Selangor, the students at a religious primary school recite their prayers just tens of meters away from the grey walls of a huge wastepaper recycling factory. Tall chimneys behind the walls emit gasses day and night.
The factory, owned by Best Eternity Recycle Technology Sdn Bhd (BERT), has a record of breaching regulations: it was fined at least four times by the Department of Environment (DOE) and Kuala Langat Municipal Council (MPKL) in the last 3 years.
Residents concerned about potential health and environmental damage have been protesting the factory. They argue that the approval of a heavy industrial plant so close to schools and residences had breached buffer zone regulations.
(Photo: An illustration showing various distances between school and residences and the BERT facility. | Pic by Long Long)
Buffer set by local plans
The DOE had been setting criteria for buffer zones between industries and residential areas. But that changed in 2018 when the DOE published the Environmental Essential For Siting Of Industries In Malaysia (EESIM). This document states that buffer zones criteria would be set by local authorities in their respective local plans.
So, the BERT facility, which began construction in 2019, would adhere to specifics of the Kuala Langat Local Plan 2030 (hereafter ‘Plan’), which was gazetted in 2018.
The Plan states that heavy industry, which include paper industry, built inside an industrial park must observe a buffer zone of at least 500 metres.
A buffer zone, says the EESIM, helps to minimise off-site impacts due to industrial residues. Inside a buffer zone, sensitive or incompatible land uses are prohibited, or special measures are taken to ameliorate the industrial impacts.
Buffer zone not qualified
Locals claim that the BERT facility had failed to meet the buffer zone requirement.
Within 500 metres from the walls of the BERT facility, there are at least 5 schools, 8 government agencies, 4 religious places of worship and 2 local residential areas, according to satellite images.
The closest school to the BERT factory is Sekolah Rendah Agama Islam Sungai Manggis (SRAISM). Only a 41-metre wide strip of land separates the two, say locals.
“We reported this issue to MPKL,” says Suhaizam Mohd Kassim, or Zam for short. His children study in SRAISM.
“The officials came in September 2020 to inspect and told us that the distance between houses and factories should be measured from the chimney, not from the fences.”
Questioning the BERT facility’s buffer zone
Whether the starting point of buffer zones should be the chimneys or fences of a facility remains contested. Such specifics are not mentioned in the Plan, though the DOE guidelines EESIM says a buffer zone should be established between the boundaries of industrial and residential areas.
Furthermore, even a buffer zone that begins from the chimneys would not spare the BERT factory from breaching the Plan. That is because the Plan stipulates that infrastructure cannot comprise more than 30% of a buffer zone.
But satellite images show the three warehouses between the chimneys and the residential area has exceeded 30% of the ‘buffer zone’.
Neither MPKL nor BERT responded to the requests for comments.
A change in plan
The buffer zone criteria are further complicated by ongoing efforts to realign the different standards in the Plan and the state guideline, which was published earlier in 2016.
The amendment process began in 2020. Proposed changes include reducing the buffer zone requirements for heavy and medium industries from 500 metres and 250 metres to 300 metres and 150 metres, respectively.
It is unclear if the proposed changes would remove the land use restrictions inside a buffer zone or set clear definitions of one. The revised Plan has not been gazetted yet.
No, you can’t just change the plan
But NGOs are strongly opposing the proposed revision, slamming it as an attempt to legalize the buffer zones of the BERT facility.
Local NGO Persatuan Tindakan Alam Sekitar Kuala Langat’s legal adviser Lee Chee Kwang says that any decision against the gazetted local plan is illegal.
He further questions why authorities take action against minor breaches by locals but condone “a huge breach” and amend guidelines in favour of “the foreign mega factory.”
Lee asks: “Are we local rakyat less equal than foreign waste plant?”
It’s to correct a mistake
On the other hand, lawmakers and the Selangor government appear to be more sympathetic to the amendments.
Selangor Local Government, Public Transportation and New Village Development Committee chairman Ng Sze Han questions Lee’s assertion that decisions against gazetted local plan are illegal.
MPKL has committed “a printing mistake” in the gazetted Plan, says Ng. “Human mistakes like this happened in other local plans. When human mistakes cause discrepancy as such, we will leave it to your judgement.”
He adds that boundaries of a buffer zone should be judged on a case-by-case basis, and that guidelines should be updated when new technologies that reduce pollution are made available.
Banting state assemblyman Lau Weng San also agrees that MPKL made a mistake by not applying the state’s new buffer zone standards.
Both Lau and Ng emphasise the need for stakeholders to come together to mediate conflict and find solutions to achieve a win-win situation.
“If there are any grey areas that the local plan did not specify clearly, we need to find a formula for that development application to consider comments from all other agencies,” says Ng.
For some of the residents living beside the BERT facility, a ‘win-win’ situation might seem out of reach now. Even as they struggle against the BERT facility, new and bigger paper recycling facilities have been approved about 2 km away.
The standoff between paper recycling facilities and residents in Banting is not likely to end anytime soon.
Aurora Tin Fong Yun is a Malaysia-based environmental writer & columnist. She writes about waste, circular economies and low carbon futures.
This story is produced with the support of Freedom Film Network and two initiatives of the International Anti-Corruption Conference: Journalists4Transparency and Films4Transparency.
Comments are welcomed but shall be moderated. Do not use language that is foul, slanderous, violent or that may violate laws. Personal attacks will not be tolerated.