Nina A. Loasana, Jakarta – Environmentalists have urged authorities to be consistent and thorough in taking legal action against people and businesses that contribute to Jakarta's air pollution, as the environment ministry moves to arrest suspects and close factories linked to the city's worsening air.
Investigators with the Environment and Forestry Ministry (KLHK) arrested four people last week for the alleged illegal open burning of toxic and dangerous waste in Tangerang regency, Banten.
"The suspects had been illegally burning electronic waste, which not only contributes to the air pollution in Greater Jakarta, but also puts public health at risk," the ministry's law enforcement director general Rasio Ridho Sani said in a recent statement.
A ministry team found that the illegal burning had led to high levels of PM10, or coarse particulate matter, and PM2.5, or fine particulate matter, both of which can be inhaled and cause detrimental health effects. The emissions produced by the fire also contained carcinogenic poly chlorinated biphenyls.
Investigators charged them with violating four articles of the 2009 Environmental Protection and Management, including a provision that prohibits any action that can worsen air quality, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a fine of up to Rp 10 billion (US$653,680).
Previously, the ministry shut down a copper smelter owned by PT XLI in Tangerang, Banten and arrested its president director for importing toxic waste and dumping it untreated. The president director, identified by his initials BSS, faced up to 15 years in prison and a maximum fine of Rp 15 billion.
The law enforcement team also shut down the operations of four other companies whose activities were allegedly causing major pollution in the capital.
The ministry launched a team of 100 personnel on Aug. 21 to investigate six locations known to have a concentration of industrial activities and their impacts on the worsening air pollution in Greater Jakarta. "We are committed to taking strict action against environmental criminals," Rasio said.
The government is scrambling to address Greater Jakarta's air pollution problem amid public outcry over worsening air quality in the region. Jakarta has consistently ranked among the top 10 most polluted cities in the world since May, according to the data from Swiss air quality technology company IQAir.
Authorities have been ramping up random vehicle checks to ensure compliance with emission tests, as they mainly blame the prolonged dry season and internal combustion engine vehicles for the pollution.
On the other hand, activists say that toxic smog from factories and coal-fired power plants near the city is responsible for the pollution, which has been dismissed by the government.
Environmental activists, like Bondan Andriyano of Greenpeace Indonesia, were skeptical that such law enforcement actions could trigger deterrent effects, saying consistency and equality was the key to ensure the success of such measures.
"Don't just arrest people only when the air pollution problem is widely discussed by the public," Bondan said. "It's also very important not to cherry-pick which factory to close down."
Muhammad Aminullah of the Jakarta branch of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) concurred, saying the ministry only monitored a small fraction of all industrial activities posing considerable environmental risk.
The ministry issued 3,000 environmental permits for various industries in Jakarta in 2021 alone, Muhammad said. "But officials claimed they are auditing eight companies. Obviously, a bigger effort is needed," he said.
Authorities should consider limiting the number of environmental permits issued to prevent overburdening Greater Jakarta with the impacts of industrial activities, Muhammad added.
Water only worsens pollution
Authorities had opted for a technique in which mist is sprayed from tall buildings and major roads across the city to clean the air and tackle the pollution.
Sigit Reliantoro, the ministry's pollution and environmental problems director general, argued the mist spraying was a micro scale alternative to the cloud seeding approach. The weather modification technology had found little success recently as the country was already during the dry season, with the effects of the El Nino phenomenon in full swing.
The Jakarta administration and Jakarta Police dispatched fire trucks to spray water on major roads across the capital, arguing that this would wash away dust and other pollutants that contribute to air pollution in the city.
But a study published in Toxics in 2021 found that large-scale water spraying on roads may in fact exacerbate the pollution, leading to the generation of more PM2.5 pollutants rather than washing them away. The authors, including Fengzhu Tan of the Hebei Medical University, investigated the efficacy of the water-spraying policy in Chinese cities aimed at reducing air pollution.
The authors argued that the sprayed water droplets lose their water content and leave behind soluble components such as minerals and salts. The smaller droplets stay suspended in the air and become smaller with evaporation, adding to the PM2.5 pollutants that were already there.
The study, however, concluded that the water-spraying policy could worsen the air pollution during the cold fall and winter rather than the hot summer.
Pulmonologist Erlina Burhan of the Persahabatan Central General Hospital cited the study and criticized Jakarta's water-spraying policy, arguing that the water spraying could not reach all pollutants in the air.
She suggested that authorities focus on weather modification approaches to wash away pollutants. "However, it's only a short-term solution," Erlina said as quoted by tribunnews.com. "It's important to address the sources of the pollution too." (kuk)