Wan Junaidi: We said ‘no’ but they went ahead

By Jonathan Edward and May Robertson

GEORGE TOWN, Oct 24 — Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar has described the actions of those responsible for the approval and construction of the housing project in Tanjung Bungah here, in which 11 people died in a landslide on Saturday, as “criminal folly”.

“Ignoring professional technical advice and approving and going ahead with a housing project on grounds deemed unsuitable by the Department of Environment (DOE) is criminal folly, he told Malay Mail.

Wan Junaidi said he was shocked by the blatant disregard of crucial safety information, adding the landslide could have been likely avoided.

“We are aware the local council is not within our jurisdiction, but when they asked us for a professional assessment by experts, we said ‘no’,” he said.

“When we say ‘no’, we know what we are talking about. This was not a political decision. It was our expert findings.”

He said the landslide at the Granito Permai housing project shared several parallels with Kuala Lumpur’s Highland Towers collapse in 1993, when water seepage had destabilised the hill
slope development.

“The location of the (Tanjung Bungah) site was thoroughly unsuitable. We learnt many lessons from the Highland Towers tragedy and the data is incorporated in our assessment models,” he said.

“In addition, this site is located next to an active quarry where explosives are used to extract materials, which are then taken to a nearby crushing site.”

Wan Junaidi said the excuse provided by Penang Island City Council mayor Datuk Maimunah Mohd Sharif and state executive councillor Chow Kon Yeow that only a few government agencies had raised objections to the project was unacceptable.

“How can they say one or two agencies had raised concerns and use that as grounds to proceed? The Land and Mines Department, the Minerals and Geoscience Department, and the Drainage and Irrigation Department work in tandem,” he said.

“Concerns raised by any of these departments should be considered. It is not a matter of what percentage agrees or disagrees. People’s lives are at stake.”

He said the Land and Mines Department had policy guidelines stating residential developments need to be at least 600m from any quarry.

Wan Junaidi said the local council seemed to show a disregard for the safety for workers and future residents by approving the development.

He said ultimately, the ministry could not enforce regulations against state authorities or local councils, as the status and use of land within a state were rightfully and constitutionally the state’s.

“Our conscience is clear and our hands are clean. We said ‘no’ to the project but they went ahead. Who is answerable to the lives lost?” he asked.

“It is especially tragic that all the workers perished for something that could have been avoided.”

On Sunday, the ministry disclosed that it received an application from the developer, Taman Sri Bunga Sdn Bhd, on Jan 9, 2015 to build the project.

After taking into account all criteria, the DOE issued a letter of rejection on Jan 23 this year, stating the site is next to a granite quarry which carried out blasting twice a month.

Its reasons included insufficient buffer zones between the proposed project and quarrying activities, and the development involved steep slopes.

Meanwhile, town and country planning law, local government and land law expert Derek Fernandez said there could be civil and criminal liability on the parties responsible if there was wilful disregard of established procedures.

“The developer’s consultant is fully responsible for the supervision of all works on the site,” he said.

“Normally, if the DOE had objected to the construction on the site due to insufficient buffer zones, such advice must be heeded unless it is a special case,” he said.

Fernandez said the Penang City Council’s One Stop Centre (OSC) would have been briefed on the existence of a quarry and other such matters that may affect the planning approval from a safety statndpoint.

“It is important to determine the cause of the disaster and whether the proper procedures were followed by the OSC in granting approval to the developer,” he said.

“Where slopes are involved, even near the bottom of hills regardless of the height, stringent guidelines must be implemented to minimise risks,” said.