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iSpeak: Is it safe to enter caves in Simpang Pulai?

By A. Jeyaraj

Calls for closing down the limestone quarries in Simpang Pulai is getting louder. Mariam Mokhtar in her latest article in Ipoh Echo wrote: “Why is it so difficult to protect Gunung Lanno?” She wants to transform limestone hills from quarrying sites into a site with activities for tourists or scientific research.

President of Perak Quarry Association (PQA), S.K. Chong issued a press statement on September 11 on safety concerns of visitors entering caves in Simpang Pulai. The statement is published in this issue of Echo (see page 8).

Meanwhile, on September 20, Kinta Valley Watch (KVW) issued a report “11 questions in response to the claims about Gunung Lanno cave exploration”. KVW states that the caves hold rich and unique records on history. Quarrying should not be done in these heritage sites.

I am not sure how much publicity these statements received. NST did not publish these.

I am listing a few of the rockfall accidents which took place in limestone hills.

On October 18, 1973, a massive slab of rock which detached from Gunung Cheroh caused the demise of 40 people. This slab can still be seen behind Gunung Cheroh.

In the late 1970s, a limestone hill in Tambun collapsed. Photos of a pile of crumbled stones were published in the papers.

On June 5, 2008, there was a rockfall in Gunung Karang Besar, Keramat Pulai; damage to a vehicle and one death.

On January 11, 2009, a big chunk of rock fell in the main cavern of Perak Tong Temple, killing a security guard and injuring two tourists; while 16 other tourists were rescued in a three-hour operation.

In April 2012, a 750m3 limestone block toppled down at Gua Tempurung. Other rockfalls have been recorded.

On July 1 this year, a fatality occurred at Noble Distinction (M) Sdn Bhd in Simpang Pulai. Blasting was done the previous Thursday in one section of the hill. The following Monday a worker at another location adjacent to where work was being done got killed. Accidents don’t happen only at the site of work, they can occur further away from where work is being done.

I have only listed a few incidents. Rockfalls do not happen only in hills where quarrying is done. Most of the rock falls which are not serious, especially in temples are not reported. In general, limestone hills are prone to rock falls.

According to a study done, the primary causes of rockfalls are attributed to the rainwater along the many joints and fissures present in the limestone and it is inevitable that the rock slabs will break from the cliff where such action has sufficiently reduced their stability.

Rockfalls are hastened by a number of secondary causes, such as vibrations due to low-intensity earthquakes, quarry blastings and passing vehicles nearby and oscillation related to the wind blowing through vegetation growing on cliff faces and loss in cohesion due to prolonged periods of wet weather. Rock slabs and blocks will, therefore, fall off occasionally although time and a period of successive rockfalls are unpredictable.

I accompanied Secretary of PQA Saw Lid Haw and visited Gunung Lanno where the famous Gua Air is located and Gua Gatsch. Quarrying was going on, on all sides. Saw informed me that blasting is being carried on the left side and behind Gua Air. I noticed rocks that had fallen due to blasting and Saw said that rocks have fallen into the pond of Gua Air during blasting. Rockslides are common in the blasting area.

In Gua Gatsch, blasting is carried out on both sides of the cave. There is no entrance from the quarrying side. Cavers enter from Kampung Kepayang.

On August 30, Department of Minerals and Geoscience organised a meeting with representatives from the Department of Land and Minerals, Police, Environment Department, Batu Gajah District Council, Perak Quarry Association, representatives from quarry companies and residents from Simpang Pulai to discuss issues related to pollution and caves. No report was issued after the meeting.

The Department of Minerals and Geoscience should engage experts to investigate the structural integrity of the hills including the caves to assess how safe they are. Robots and drones can be sent for inspection. Photos of the interior of the caves should be taken. They need to find ways to preserve the caves and keep them intact; rehabilitate the blasted areas by replanting. We should find an amicable solution that satisfies the interests of all parties. Find out what other countries have done. Instead of being emotional, we must be rational.

Saw wanted to know who becomes responsible if accidents occur inside a cave. He said various authorities did not want to answer his question. The quarries and caves are private properties and the public are not allowed to enter. He informed that some companies are bringing in tourists. If accidents occur who is responsible? He added that since the caves belong to the quarry owners, they would become answerable. Hence, the quarry would be closed for a long duration and loss to the company.

During March this year journalists were taken to the 10-hectare area that was cleared in Kledang Hill to see the situation. The journalists were only taken to the first level. The authorities said that the soil above was unstable and not safe to go. The clearing was done in January. Just clearing of the forest had made the soil unstable till today.

Now for about 50 years, the limestone hills in Simpang Pulai are being blasted. What would be the stability of the hills and caves? Blasting can be stopped, but I think the damage is already done.

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