January 19, 2016

Environment Minister Mulls Harsher Penalties for Polluters

Environment Minister Mulls Harsher Penalties for Polluters

Bauxite mining has wreaked havoc with Pahang state's environment. A proposed new law would impose harsher penalties on polluters. Photo Credit: The Malaysian Insider

Protecting Malaysia’s unique natural environments is in the collective interest of all Malaysians, yet citizens of the country, individually and collectively, often end up doing more harm than good to their environments through reckless actions and irresponsible choices. Corporations can be especially guilty of placing profits ahead of the good of natural environments, which they often seem to treat as a vast resource ready for further exploitation without a care for long-term consequences.

Seeking temporary financial gains, logging companies continue to decimate rainforests, some of which comprise the oldest natural habitats on earth, thereby placing the country at risk of losing its unique biodiversity. Mines, meanwhile, continue to pollute nearby environments through negligence and a lack of environmentally sustainable practices. In an especially egregious recent incident, news of which has angered Malaysians all around the country, waterways and seashores in the state of Pahang have turned red from the vast amounts of mercury and arsenic that leached into them from bauxite mines. Local ecosystems may have become irrevocably damaged and water sources severely contaminated.

So how can this country avoid such man-made catastrophes in future? The Minister of Natural Resources and Environment thinks he has the answer: harsher penalties. In the wake of the environmental disaster in Pahang, the minister, Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, is seeking to amend legislation to enforce stricter liability for environmental polluters. “The water has turned red,” he said. “When the Department of Environment checked, they found the water was not clean anymore. The evidence is there. Still we don’t have the law to accuse the ports or the lorry drivers or the companies.”

Wan Junaidi wants to change that. Authorities have so far charged four officers in Pahang with corruption for allegedly accepting bribes from illegal mine operators, but the federal government is limited in its abilities to hold those responsible to account. A new law could reduce those limitations. For the time being, a temporary ban has been placed on bauxite mining as the government sets about enforcing stricter regulations and finding a permanent solution. It is an inescapable fact of life that people respond to incentives and penalties. Ensuring that corporations, be they involved in mining, shipping or logging, comply with environmental regulations will entail imposing far more serious penalties on polluters. A new law would indeed be another welcome step towards that goal.

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