Penang government won't cordon off beach

MASSIVE CLEAN-UP: Readings show faecal coliform, E. coli levels have dropped

GEORGE TOWN - THE Penang government has no plans to close down a section of Batu Ferringhi beach contaminated with E. coli bacteria. State Environment Committee chairman Phee Boon Poh said this was because the state authorities felt the beach was now safe based on state Department of Environment (DOE) tests. The tests showed that faecal coliform and E. coli readings had dropped drastically after a massive clean-up from Wednesday.

Samples collected by the department from the Sungai Batu Ferringhi estuary and the nearby sea area last Tuesday recorded readings of a staggering 16,000cfu (colony-forming unit) per 100ml, far exceeding the permissible 100mpn/100ml level as stipulated for a recreational beach under Class 2 of the Marine Water Quality Criteria and Standards. ("Mpn" stands for most probable number, while "cfu" is an estimate of viable bacterial or fungal numbers in microbiology.)

"However, the state government will abide by any DOE recommendations on the matter," Phee said yesterday.

The decision to keep the beach open has not gone down well with Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Seri G. Palanivel, who criticised the state government for not cordoning it off to the public considering the potential health risks involved.

Palanivel, who was in Penang yesterday to officiate the ground-breaking for the Penang Indian Association's new multi-purpose hall, also lambasted the state government for not taking on an active role in the river cleaning and riverbed desilting exercise.

The task was undertaken by the Drainage and Irrigation Department.

"The Penang Island Municipal Council should get its act together to put up warning signs to stop beachgoers from entering the waters at the beachfront," he said. DOE director-general Datuk Halimah Hassan had revealed that the levels of faecal coliform and E. coli in water samples taken at the river estuary on Feb 4 were above the standard limits set for recreational or tourist beaches.

The readings, however, dipped to 20cfu/100ml the following day.

Palanivel suggested that all state governments enforce a rule allowing sewage piping for treated effluent to be located at least 1km away from the seafront.

The minister confirmed that Indah Water Konsortium (IWK) was the main culprit behind the pollution, with commercial outlets, such as laundromats, car wash centres and eateries, also responsible.

"IWK released the effluent discharged from the outlets into the water without treating the pollutants properly. The river emitted such a foul stench during my site visit to Batu Ferringhi on Sunday."

Meanwhile, Halimah said the DOE would bring the polluters to book.

"We will continue monitoring the situation at the river downstream on a daily basis. Sample collection is also in progress."

She said the department would not take chances with the E. coli presence in the waters.

"Early investigations showed that the river pollutant level had dropping compared with readings last Monday, but the matter is far from over," she told the New Straits Times.

Halimah cautioned that the E. coli bacteria could contaminate the waters once again.

"Our officers are not letting their guard down, despite signs of improvement. We are taking daily samples until the pollutant readings return to normal. The E. coli bacteria is still present and our job is far from done."

After the NST broke the story last Monday, the authorities have been scrambling to clean up the river and part of the beach polluted with black effluent.

The incident, dubbed the "Batu Ferringhi Shame", caused an outcry, with many quarters, including residents, hoteliers and non-governmental organisations, who all called for a permanent solution.

The matter had caught the attention of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, who ordered Palanivel to get to the bottom of the problem and resolve it once and for all.