“Ultimately, errant companies must know there must be a price to be paid for damaging our health, the environment and economy,” Singapore’s Minister of the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR), Vivian Balakrishnan, warned on Friday.
He was speaking at a media conference on the haze situation in Singapore and Indonesia, which is the source of the annual smog.
Dr Balakrishnan revealed that the National Environment Agency (NEA) has begun legal proceedings against five companies which it believes are among those responsible for the fires in the Indonesian island of Sumatra and Kalimantan.
This is a tougher stance which the Singapore government is now taking, even as it continues to offer its assistance to the Indonesian government to fight the fires. Indonesia, however, has not taken up the offer.
The NEA has been collecting evidence by monitoring hot spots, smoke plumes, maps, meteorological data and satellite images, to substantiate its case against the companies which it is holding responsible for the haze.
On Friday, the NEA served legal papers on Singapore-listed firm, Asia Pulp and Paper, which has an office in Singapore, to supply information on its subsidiaries in Singapore and Indonesia, as well as measures taken by its suppliers in Indonesia to put out fires in their concessions, the Straits Times reported.
Four other companies, all Indonesian ones, have also been issued Preventative Measure Notices, and ordered to take measures to extinguish fires on land which they own, and to prevent new fires from being started.
“It cannot be tolerated,” Dr Balakrishnan said. “It has caused major impact on the health, society and economy of our region.”
He added, “Just yesterday we had to close our primary and secondary schools. The last time we had to take this measure was in 2003 during the SARS episode.”
On Thursday and Friday, the air quality in Singapore breached the “hazardous” level with a PSI reading of more than 300.
The government’s tough stance this time round is the first under Singapore’s Transboundary Haze Pollution Act, which allows for a maximum fine of S$100,000 per day, capped at S$2 million in total, for companies found guilty of starting fires.
“We will share our results with the public whenever possible,” Dr Balakrishnan said of the NEA’s investigations. “The Government will also review our procurement practices to see how we can weed out errant companies. We will therefore expect companies to be transparent about their supply chains, particularly those involved in the palm oil and forestry sectors. Ultimately, errant companies must know there must be a price to be paid for damaging our health, the environment and economy.”
In a separate development, a group of volunteers in Singapore is planning to sue companies responsible for the fires in Indonesia.
Calling itself the Haze Elimination Action Team (HEAT), which was first set up in 2007 and which has about 800 members, the group says it is looking for an “ideal plaintiff” for the civil suit.
Led by Dr Ang Peng Hwa, a professor at Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, HEAT is urging those who have been adversely affected by the haze to step forward and help in this effort to bring errant companies to account.
Dr Ang cited as an example hotels and tour agencies which have had their bookings cancelled.
“Most of us have incurred some form of loss during the haze,” Dr Ang told the media on Thursday. “What we are looking for is someone or an organisation that has incurred losses of a few thousand dollars or more due the haze.
“An ideal plaintiff would be someone who has been hospitalised, for example,” he said.
He said that the group is looking to raise between $50,000 and $100,000 for the legal suit. However, those who step forward as potential plaintiffs will “not have to pay anything.”