I thought the city council got off quite lightly. The following is the response by the Tanjung Bungah Residents Association:
The recommendations of the State Commission of Inquiry on the Granito tragedy in Tanjung Bungah that led to the deaths of 11 workers on 21 October 2017 must be urgently translated into action and given effect by all the relevant government agencies.
This has to be done in order to avert future tragedies related to hill-site and hil-slope developments, not only in Penang but throughout the country.
The deaths of 11 innocent workers on that fatal day should not go in vain and real reforms must result, following the lessons learnt and the recommendations made by the inquiry.
The Tanjung Bungah Residents Association took an active part in the inquiry, and we are happy to see that some of our calls for reform have been reflected in the recommendations.
Key among them is the recommendation to amend the “Safety Guidelines for Hillsite Development 2012” “to render it applicable to any and all slopes (whether permanent or otherwise), natural or man-made (and whether existing or only to be formed later during construction), which has (or is intended to have) any height above 25 degree gradient”.
The commission of inquiry has recommended that in such cases, a geotechnical report and an independent checker must be made compulsory in relation to such slopes.
In the Granito case, all parties including the engineer who was primarily found responsible for the slope failure by the commission as well as the Penang Island City Council, took the position that the hillsite guidelines did not apply to the project, as the building footprint for the project was on land below a 25-degree gradient and the guidelines only applied to natural slopes and not to man-made slopes.
As confirmed by the commission of inquiry, even when the city council’s engineering department was alerted to the fact that a 60-degree slope was being envisaged from the earthworks plan for the project, the council did not invoke the hillsite guidelines, which would have required a geotechnical report and the appointment of an independent checker.
TBRA had submitted to the commission of inquiry that had the city council imposed such a requirement, this tragedy may have been averted.
While the commission of inquiry report was very stern and strong in its criticism of the engineers involved in this project – and for which we commend the commissioners – it is regrettable that the commission of inquiry was not harsher on the city council in this regard, when it concluded that the municipal authority was not responsible as “it was not unreasonable (without the benefit of hindsight) for MBPP to treat (the earthworks plan) as a ‘working-method’ towards achieving the construction of multi-tier walls” and that the city council “was not responsible for scrutinising working-methods”.
We believe that the city council should have received more flak from the commission of inquiry and not left off the hook – especially when they did not even conduct site checks, knowing that steep slope construction was going.
The state commission of inquiry findings have clearly revealed many shortcomings in our policies and enforcement capacities towards hill slopes and hill land development.
We agree with the inquiry recommendation that the “MBPP should immediately draw up and enforce a policy that no development project shall be allowed to commence any works (including earthworks), unless and until a qualified resident engineer(s) shall have been employed and stationed at the site to supervise construction works…”.
It is also good that the commission of inquiry report has also recommended that “MBPP shall make spot checks, by surprise visits to construction sites, from time to time. If need be, the manpower in the enforcement department in MBPP ought to be enlarged with competent personnel.”
Unless the enforcement capabilities of our municipal authorities are seriously beefed up and followed through with rigour on all hill-site developments, tragedies such as that in the Granito case are bound to be repeated.
Placing complete faith in engineers, developers and contractors to follow the law is certainly not prudent as seen from this tragedy.
We sincerely hope that the Penang state government’s move in setting up a committee involving the various agencies to come up with recommendations following the commission of inquiry report is expedited and acted on with urgency.
Until such reforms are in place, no hillsite and hill-slope developments should be approved.
Meenakshi Raman is chairperson of the Tanjung Bungah Residents Association.