Penang Forum supports the call for wide-ranging public consultations and hearings as well as independent impact assessments before projects are approved.
In Penang Forum’s statement (27 November 2015) on the Umno land reclamation motion, we reiterated that the public has every right to know, and the State has every obligation to provide accurate and full information on major issues like massive land reclamation.
The Penang chief minister in numerous press releases has argued against the Umno motion for three main reasons:
First, he says the motion is superfluous as the present rules require environmental and social impact assessment (EIA) to be carried out and approved by the Department of Environment before a reclamation project is approved.
Second, he claims that if the State postpones approved reclamation projects, it would have to compensate RM1bn to the developers. (Note the Umno motion talks of new, not existing projects.) We will deal with this aspect in our next media statement.
Third, he says it is hypocritical for Umno to raise this as it approved 3,241 acres for land reclamation while the present State approved only 60 acres for reclamation. In our earlier statement, we agreed with his third reason.
Now, let’s look at his first reason. In our earlier statement, we stated that the motion calling for public hearings goes beyond the limited scope of public feedback in the usual EIA process and hence is worthy of support.
It is true that present rules require an EIA to be done and approved by relevant authorities before a project can be approved or commenced. But the present process and the implementation of this policy has serious weaknesses and should be corrected by the state government.
First and foremost, large reclamation projects should not be haphazard and random. It must form an integral part of holistic development planning.
Second, when initiating big projects with major environmental impact such as building tunnels or undertaking massive land reclamation, a detailed EIA should be carried out BEFORE, not after, an agreement is signed and the project awarded.
Third, an EIA should be carried out by a truly independent consultant and not one employed and paid by the party that has been awarded the project. The present practice reverses this process and weakens the credibility of an EIA study. This seems to be the case with the recent announcement that the State is awarding 1,375 hectares of reclamation rights to a consortium for the Penang transport masterplan. Awarding a project and then asking the recipent to do an EIA biases the results in favour of the project. To avoid this, some city councils like the Kawasaki City Councils employ their own staff to undertake EIAs, and developers pay for the studies.
The STP2 case
The implementation of the EIA study by the developer’s consultant for Seri Tanjung Pinang Phase 2 (STP2) project exposed many weaknesses, offers lessons to be learned and steps to correct the deficiencies.
The present EIA process requires:
- an independent review panel to comment on the scope of work and issues to be addressed in an EIA;
- public consultations in the process of the study; and
- public display of the EIA results for feedback.
However, the way it was carried out leaves the impression that the EIA process was simply a bureaucratic requirement to be fulfilled and dispensed with.
For example, many important issues raised by the review panel were not addressed in the EIA study. In one public consultation, the developer’s chief consultant on coastal oceanography made the spurious claim that the Gurney Drive siltation was caused by the 2004 tsunami, and that the STP1 land reclamation did not have any adverse environmental impact. This prompted a call for an independent review of the robustness of the STP1 EIA study, but it was never done.
As for public feedback, at least two civil society organisations, the Consumers Association of Penang and Penang Forum, submitted a detailed review of the STP2 consultant’s three-volume EIA report (see the Penang Forum website for its review of this report. The consultant’s EIA report is titled: Proposed Reclamation of Seri Tanjung Pinang: Detailed Environmental Impact Assessment, 2014, hereafter referred to as STP-EIA.) The PF submitted its review to the Department of Environment of the federal government; sadly, not only was there no response, there was not even a letter of acknowledgment. Yet, two or three weeks after the closure of the public feedback process, the EIA was hastily approved.
Since the Penang State government’s approval was also required (offering a second line of due diligence), the PF approached two senior representatives of the Penang State government and offered to give a briefing session on our report to the State Assembly or Executive Committee. Regrettably, this request was rebuffed and the effort proved futile. Consequently Penang Forum presented its findings to the public through two press statements and conferences in March and April 2014.
All this shows how the EIA process is far from satisfactory and, in the STP2 case, failed to take into account the views put forward by civil society. Many concerned Penangites therefore cannot be faulted for not having much faith in the usual EIA process.
In this regard, Penang Forum supports the call for wide-ranging public consultations and hearings as well as independent impact assessments before projects are approved.
Penang Forum steering committee
1 December 2015