A lonely EIA and Penang’s gigantic reclamation project

Penang's Gurney Drive

From ecological damage to coastal erosion, from traffic dispersal to density issues; the anxieties over the effects of this mammoth plan are by no means unwarranted.

Himanshu Bhatt, fz.com

I REMEMBER it was sometime in 1996 that a solitary thick bundle was left for public viewing, for just about a month or so, in the Penang state library then located on the third floor of the Dewan Sri Pinang.

The document was the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report on a plan to reclaim a well-known beach and traditional inshore fishing area at Tanjung Tokong in Penang.

Now this was before the Internet became popular. There was no virtual access and very few parties actually made their way up to the place to go through the crucial text.

One of the few parties that did study the document, and which expressed concern about the effects of the project, was the Penang Ratepayers Association then chaired by Datuk Seri Lim Chong Keat.

I personally covered the issue as a young reporter back then, and vividly recall Lim lamenting the utter lack of public participation in such an important EIA and what it represented.

As it so happens, the reclamation went ahead, the original shoreline disappeared, and after some years of delay and change of hands, the new 240-acre land that emerged was eventually developed and named Seri Tanjung Pinang (STP).

Incidentally, it was also about this same time that the tides around the area changed drastically. Most glaringly, the shoreline along the iconic and popular Gurney Drive nearby became reduced into a muddy coastal swamp.

In a strange way, history seems to be now repeating itself.

Since January 24 this year, a new set of EIA documents has been kept at the back of a solitary office of the Penang Island Municipal Council (MPPP) on the relatively quiet fourth floor of Komtar.

Unbeknownst to many, this sizeable bundle of three books can be viewed by anyone from the public – at least those who know of its existence – by being ushered into a backroom.

The document is the EIA for an entirely new reclamation project measuring a gargantuan 760 acres. It covers a further portion of the sea, in front of the already reclaimed Seri Tanjung Pinang.

Dubbed Seri Tanjung Pinang II (STP2) the project is expected to be complemented by additional reclamation – along the coast of Gurney Drive – by about 131 acres.

It is certainly a stunning project, in size and scale.

Meagre and minimal publicity of EIA

But what has taken many quarters by utter surprise is that very few knew that the much-awaited EIA has been available for reading until local activist Anil Netto last week publicised it on his blog.

There were apparently some paid advertisements put up in the media, but seemingly little else than what is legally required.

Certainly, the initiative appears meagre on the part of the authorities, compared to what the state government did late last year in openly exhibiting and announcing with some ceremony the draft of the Special Area Plan for Penang Hill. Copies were also made available on CDs.

In contrast, when I went to the MPPP’s office myself to find the huge bundles of the EIA dropped in front of me, I asked if there was a CD copy I could buy and take back. There was none.

(The EIA is also available on the Department of Environment’s (DOE) website, but there is no direct indication of this on its homepage. One needs to register first by clicking on an obscure button labelled ‘EIA Report’ to be able to access it.)

Even more stunning is the fact that the EIA copy will only be kept for public reading there until this Friday, Feb 21.

Meanwhile, following the submission of the DEIA to the DOE on Jan 13, an investment research firm recently reported that the STP2 reclamation works by Eastern & Oriental Bhd are “on track” to begin in the second half of this year, following the regulatory approval and tendering process.

Contentious PGCC and Penang Hill plans remembered

Now the STP2 would be one of the biggest single projects, in terms of size and monetary worth, in Malaysia.

Uncannily enough, with a thundering gross development value of RM25 billion, it is similar in estimated worth to the immensely controversial RM25 billion Penang Global City Centre (PGCC) that was planned on Penang Turf Club land in 2007.

In terms of being reviled by many local residents and environmentalists, the PGCC was probably second only to the infamous commercial development plan for Penang Hill of the late 80s.

The opposition against that hill plan was so overwhelming that it is said to have contributed to an extent to the defeat and subsequent political retirement of Penang’s respected chief minister, Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu, in the general election of October 1990.

However, as it transpired, the PGCC never got through when its plan was turned down by the MPPP just before the general election of March 2008.

And following the landslide electoral victory of the DAP and its Pakatan Rakyat coalition, the newly minted chief minister Lim Guan Eng later declared the PGCC to be “as good as dead.”

Now, five years after that “political tsunami” of 2008, one may be forgiven for wondering if the “dead” PGCC’s spirit has undergone a resurrection.

The sheer enormity of the STP2 has led to plenty of concerns and questions which were very evident during a public hearing on the project on Aug 24 last year.

From ecological damage to coastal erosion, from traffic dispersal to density issues; the anxieties over the effects of this mammoth plan are by no means unwarranted.

Forewarning from reclaimed island in Johor?

Ironically enough, at the same time that the EIA for STP2 is lying in the quiet MPPP office in Penang, another huge reclamation project off Gelang Patah in Johor is reportedly eliciting angry concerns among locals there.

The DAP’s Gelang Patah MP, Lim Kit Siang, expressed shock at this other project, which has seen a new and still expanding island called Pulau Ubah.

In a strongly-worded statement last Sunday (Feb 16), Kit Siang pointed to its drastic effects – how it has allegedly destroyed the livelihood of 250 fishermen from six Malay kampungs, caused million-ringgit losses through the deaths of ten tonnes of fish and millions of fish fry in ten fish farms in the past 10 days, and how it has damaged the eco-system off the coast of the Gelang Patah constituency.

“The new island is the result of a major scandal of transparency, accountability and good governance in Johor State,” Kit Siang said.

In comparison, the process for the STP2 has been more open.

But this situation seen in Johor must come as a strange, timely reminder for the authorities in Penang.

For it is crucial to ensure that the whole process for the reclaimed island here is complied with, not just what is legally required in the bare minimum.

It must be pursued in a pro-active manner, with utmost transparency and accountability. It is absolutely essential that information is provided with no restraint; and that ample time and opportunity be allowed for public feedback that must be judiciously and independently considered.

The project’s proponents would emphasise that it holds big economic promise, that it would spur progress and help make Penang an international city.

Whatever the pros and cons, the STP2 will affect every Penangite, altering the island and the state, in a way never done before, and therefore merits to be heard, discussed and thrashed out openly and unreservedly.

That would be the hallmark of transparent engagement between government, business and civil society, and the making of a truly progressive and advanced city.