Authorities in Malaysia’s Johor State said Tuesday they had ordered the shutdown of 13 schools after hundreds of students and teachers were rushed to area hospitals when they inhaled fumes from chemicals illegally dumped into a local river.
Three suspects have been arrested, officials said.
The incident drew the ire of Sultan of Johor Ibrahim Iskandar, who ordered authorities to “quickly arrest and penalize the offenders” behind the dumping of toxic waste in the Sungai Kim River.
“As a result of the irresponsible act, hundreds of people, including students and pupils, had to be rushed to hospital,” the ruler said in a statement on his official Facebook page. “Don’t those responsible feel any remorse at the thought that children in the ICU are fighting for their lives?”
The schools should not be reopened, he said, as long as the situation was not safe for students and teachers. “Cut down on much movement outdoors,” he said.
Shahruddin Jamal, chairman of the state’s health, environment and agriculture committee, said the schools would be closed starting Wednesday.
He said authorities had made the decision during a meeting in which authorities also decided to appoint a licensed contractor that would carry out a cleanup of the river in Pasir Gudang, an industrial town about 330 km (206 miles) southeast of the capital Kuala Lumpur.
“The public are advised not to enter the area where the cleanup is taking place,” Shadruddin said in a statement.
As many as 308 students, teachers and others have been hospitalized after complaining of breathing difficulties, dizziness and vomiting after inhaling toxic fumes, he said.
The closure order includes two schools that were ordered to be evacuated last week after dozens of students also complained of breathing difficulties when chemicals dumped in the river began emitting fumes as a result of hot weather, officials said.
Investigators had identified the illegally dumped chemicals as marine oil that emitted flammable methane and benzene fumes.
Mohammad Ezzani Mat Salleh, director of the Johor Department of Environment, told BenarNews on Tuesday that his office had completed its probe after arresting three people, including a recycling plant owner.
Investigators also raided two factories on Monday and seized several items that would be used as evidence, he said.
The suspects were being investigated under Section 34b of the Environment Act, he said.
If found guilty, the suspects could face a prison term of no more than five years and fines, officials said.
The environmental group Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) on Tuesday urged authorities to disclose the findings of their probe.
“The results of the investigation and action taken should be publicly disclosed to ease the concerns of the residents living near the scene,” SAM President S.M. Mohamed Idris told BenarNews.