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Some concerns about the proposed Kulim airport

It has huge potential to cause massive negative effects on the surrounding environment, if not properly planned, sited and executed.

Chan Ngai Weng
4 minute read

Water Watch Penang (WWP), an NGO based in Penang but which works in the water arena throughout Malaysia, generally supports sustainable development and is not against Kedah’s proposed Kulim International Airport (KXP), which will likely boost the economy, tourism and other developments in the NCER region.

However, the proposed KXP is a huge project with equally huge potential to cause massive negative effects on the surrounding environment, if not properly planned, sited and executed. The KXP project is not just building an airport, but involves airport and airport city, aerotropolis (commercial and industrial park), and an aerospace, logistics and manufacturing hub. This is a massive development that has the potential to generate massive amounts of industrial and sewage effluents.

WWP is very concerned that the proposed site of the KXP is just beside the Sg Muda, the major water source that supplies the three NCER states of Perlis (70%), Kedah (96%) and Penang (80%).

With such a massive development situated just beside the river, it is expected that the land clearance and construction phase itself would expose the soil to erosion, leading to huge amounts of sediment being washed into the nearby river. This sedimentation would have the following negative effects:

(i) Pollution of Sg Muda in terms of total suspended solids (TDS) and total suspended solids (TSS). Studies have shown that annual soil loss ranges from 0 tonnes (no soil loss in forested areas) to 200 tonnes (in agriculture areas) and 600 tonnes (in open exposed area);

(ii) A shallowing effect that reduces the drainage capacity of the river leading to flash floods downstream;

(iii) Negative effects on riverine biodiversity, fauna and fauna, which also results in poorer catch for fishermen.

It should be noted that water pollution and downstream flooding are just two of the many potential negative impacts of the KXP project during the construction phase. After construction, and when the airport is in operation, other more serious effects may follow.

One that is of major concern is the need to build a huge sewage treatment plant (STP) for the KXP. The sewerage and wastewater from this STP will be discharged into the receiving waters of Sg Muda, as stated in the EIA report of KXP now on public display.

Apparently, the proposed discharge point is only a few kilometres upstream from 13 water intake points of both Kedah and Penang. This is just too risky and dangerous as any mishap or breakdown in the STP will jeopardise both states’ water treatment plants. It is not uncommon to have mishaps in STPs, especially when equipment starts to break down in the STP as a result of wear and tear, due to malfunction and human mistakes.

Currently, all water treatment plants in Kedah and Penang employ conventional water treatment technologies which are not equipped to deal with excessive or unknown concentrations of chemical or microbiological content such as those found in sewage. The EIA report also states that over 30 years, the STP will be expanded on a modular basis, with population equivalent (PE) capacity increasing up to 500,000 PE, all of which will eventually be discharged into the Sg Muda.

Such a high volume of PE discharge into such an important water source is just too risky. Any mishap at the STP would bring certain disaster to the three states. It should also be pointed out that any airport, airport city, A=aerotropolis (commercial and industrial park), or aerospace, logistics and manufacturing hub also have the potential to discharge persistent organic pollutants (POPs) which are industrial chemicals, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) as well as unintentional by-products of many industrial processes that involves high temperatures, including polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (PCDD) and dibenzofurans (PCDF), commonly known as dioxins.

With just the airport, maybe POPs and PCBs would not appear, but with an airport industrial park and aerospace manufacturing hub, these pollutants might appear depending on the chemicals used and the processes involved.

Airport operations also include many activities that are likely to result in the discharge of pollutants into adjacent water bodies such as rivers. These include fuel storage, refuelling, aircraft and vehicle cleaning and maintenance, operation of aircrafts, operation of airport and passenger vehicles, airport ground service equipment (GSE), cleaning and maintenance of aircraft, GSE, and motor vehicles, fuelling and fuel storage of aircraft and vehicles, airport facility operations and maintenance, and maintenance and construction of airport buildings. All these generate non-point pollutants that can be washed by stormwaters into a river, and there is the risk of an oil spill occurring.

Hence, water run-offs from airports are a major polluter because they contain high levels of chemicals and other toxic substances from aircrafts and airfields, fuel spillages, firefighting foam, the oil and chemicals from aircraft and vehicle maintenance, and detergents used in the aircraft, cleaning, etc. In addition, airports also produce a lot of solid waste and special hazardous waste from terminal and airfield operations, aircraft catering, and maintenance activities. These hazardous waste products can contaminate and pollute waterways.

WWP reiterates that it is not against the KXP. We are only concerned about the effects of the KXP airport, its aerotropolis and aerospace, logistics and manufacturing hub on Sg Muda, the river ecosystem and on the river’s vital water resources. Hence, we appeal to the authorities responsible for the KXP to relocate the site of the project to a more suitable location which is less risky and that has far fewer potential negative effects. This location should be as far away from the banks of Sg Muda as possible.

WWP would also like to point out that the National Airports Strategic Plan (NASP) announced by the transport ministry in 2020 stated that all airport upgrades or work on new airports would be put on hold until the study was completed in 2023. This should include the KXP, which for all intents and purposes should be put on hold just like all airport projects in the country pending the NASP.

Chan Ngai Weng is president of Water Watch Penang.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of MalaysiaNow.