A Singapore man pleaded not guilty Thursday to pollution charges related to a toxic chemical dump that sickened more than 2,700 people and shut down dozens of schools in Johor state last month.
Sim Wei Der entered the plea in Johor Bahru Sessions Court and was freed on 250,000 ringgit (U.S. $60,000) bail, officials said.
Sim, who is scheduled to return to court on May 23, could be sentenced up to five years in jail and a maximum fine of 500,000 ringgit ($120,000), if he is found guilty on two charges under the Environmental Quality Act of 1974.
Another Singaporean and two Malaysians were charged previously with similar offenses.
Johor Deputy Police Chief Mohd Kamarudin Md Din said Sim, who is a director of a used tire processing company, surrendered to the Malaysian authorities on Wednesday at police headquarters in Pasir Gudang.
“The 49-year-old Singapore man was arrested,” Mohd Kamarudin said. “He was subsequently detained at the police lockup facility in Seri Alam.”
Sim and the others allegedly disposed oily sludge into the Sungai Kim Kim River on March 7 without written permission from the director-general of the Department of Environment, according to the charge sheet filed Thursday.
Their action resulted in a chemical disaster around the town of Pasir Gudang, causing 111 schools to close and more than 2,700 people to seek medical treatment after being exposed to toxic fumes, prosecutors said.
Benzene, toluene, xylene, ethylbenzene and d-limonene were found in samples taken from the river, the Department of Environment said.
The World Health Organization reported such solvents are suspected carcinogens and could cause anemia and reduce white blood cells, according to the American Oil & Gas Reporter magazine.
Yeo Bee Yin, minister of environment, science, technology and climate change, said 6.4 million ringgit ($1.5 million) had been spent cleaning a 1.5-km (1-mile) section of the river around the disposal site.
“The 6.4-million ringgit was just for cleaning and does not include the cost for personnel and others,” she told reporters last month.
State petroleum company Petronas and the military sent machinery and experts to help clean the river, which was declared safe on April 19, officials said.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong raised concerns about the polluted water during a retreat in Putrajaya with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on April 9.
Lee asked about the cleanliness of rivers, including the Johor River, which serves as a water supply to his nation.
Under a water deal signed in 1962, Malaysia sells Singapore water from the Johor River at less than one U.S. penny per 1,000 gallons, the South China Morning Post reported in September 2018. The report noted that 60 percent of Singapore’s water needs are supplied under the agreement.
“If the Johor River experiences the same occurrence as in Sungai Kim Kim the other day, its impact would be catastrophic for both countries,” Lee said during the retreat.