The building site in Tanjung Bungah, Penang, where 11 workers were killed in a landslide last month.

LAW enforcers serving to protect the environment will be given unprecedented powers to arrest the emerging and perennial environmental problems that have been plaguing the country.

The powerful “weapon” they will be equipped with comes in the form of a new act: the Environmental Protection Act (EPA).

This proposed law will replace the outdated Environmental Quality Act (EQA) 1974. This comprehensive piece of legislation, which took environmental experts no less than two years to formulate to ensure its effectiveness, is being screened by the Attorney-General’s Chambers. It boasts 91 sections, 41 more than the EQA.

“We are facing new challenges that require new laws and enforcement procedures and the 41 new sections, which encompass many new areas, will empower us to better manage the environment,” said Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar in an exclusive interview with the New Sunday Times.

“The emergence of more complex global environmental issues results in the need for new approaches and more comprehensive laws to deal with pollutants.”

Key areas that the law seeks to strengthen include the formulation of a more comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) system and the introduction of a “third party”, that would be given the mandate to approve high-impact projects.

The “third party” Wan Junaidi mentioned is the proposed added role of the National Physical Development Council and National Land Council, which will be empowered to decide whether a project should be given the green light.

Members of the councils, to be made up of experts from various fields, will screen applications for future projects, which are categorised as high risk, massive in size and located in “sensitive” areas.

Wan Junaidi said the ministry was also looking at getting more groups involved in the approval process, and that it would be on a case-to-case basis.

With the two councils coming into play, the role of the Department of Environment (DoE) would only kick in to carry out a project’s EIA, if the council had first approved it.

“Now, even though DoE is against certain projects because of the risks they pose, local councils can still give their approval because of their power on state land matters... This was what happened in Penang.

The rate for compoundable offences will be raised by up to 50 per cent as a deterrent. FILE PIC

“With the law, if the council of experts says it’s a no-go from the start, the project will not proceed,” he said, adding that if it was approved, DoE would still underline any mitigation that must be carried out.

This, Wan Junaidi said, would be possible with the incorporation of four new EIA guidelines in the proposed law, that would make it mandatory for DoE’s recommendations to be adhered to.

It underlines the “requirements and prerequisites” for future developments on “national and state land and parks”, “slopes and hills”, as well as “coastal and marine parks”. Another area spelt out in the guidelines touches on land pollution prevention and mitigating measures.

The minister said he hoped that this would arrest the issue of cross-jurisdictional matters and prevent cases like the Penang landslide that killed 11 people from recurring.

The landslide that occurred at the affordable high-rise housing project in Tanjung Bungah shocked many people when it was reported that DoE had rejected the developer’s EIA report.

However, the project was given the go-ahead by the local authority, which said “only a few agencies raised concerns over the safety of the project”.

To this, Wan Junaidi said the local authority’s excuse was unacceptable, as DoE played an important role in analysing all information, including those supplied by other departments, before deciding on the EIA.

He said any offences under the new act would be treated as “strict liability”, and this allowed action to be taken against polluters, whether or not they intended to commit the crime.

“(In prosecution) to prove one’s intention is one of the most difficult parts, so the law is designed in such a way that as long as you are polluting the environment, we can act no matter what your intention was,” he added.

Environment polluters, Wan Junaidi said could also be slapped with heftier punishments.

“It has been deemed that the punishment for polluting and damaging the environment is a slap on the wrist... and more often than not, the offenders have no problems paying up.

“Now, a person who pollutes a river pays a mere RM2,000 fine and walks home smiling... to worsen matters, the compound system is one-off. We have to catch the same offender repeatedly before we can take them to court,” he said, adding that this was why the rate for compoundable offences would be raised by up to 50 per cent.

The law, he added would also set the minimum and maximum penalties, to send a message to everyone that environmental crime was a very serious offence.

A major shift is also expected in the way the ministry’s enforcers carry out their duties. The law will empower them with investigative powers to probe offences under the Criminal Procedure Code and obtain information and documents.

“So, after this, they will have similar powers like the police... they can search, knock on people’s doors and, in certain cases, they can even seize things to prevent loss of evidence,” he said.

Wan Junaidi added that the law would regulate the green technology industry with the checks and balances to ensure its players were not abusing systems, including those involving funds.

“Since 2010, the government has made it easier for participants in green technology to obtain bank loans and many have taken up the incentives.

“The 2018 allocation for this sector is RM5 billion, but who is monitoring and ensuring they are really using the fund for green technology? So, this law will address this,” he said. 

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