33 Back On Job in S’ville Toxic Scandal

Nearly three dozen customs officials suspended a year ago for alleged involvement in the dumping of toxic waste in Sihanoukville will return to their jobs, the deputy director of the customs department said Wednesday.

Khun Nhim said Finance Minister Keat Chhon on Monday ordered the 33 customs officers reinstated after a ministry committee found they were not involved in the importation of 3,000 tons of mercury-laden toxic waste by a Taiwanese company at the port in November, 1998.

Finance Undersecretary of State Ngy Tay Ea confirmed Wed­­nesday that the suspended customs officials were found not responsible by their bosses, and he pointed out that the court last June found only four men guilty of bringing the waste to Cambo­dia.

Despite the convictions of the four men, the government has never explained who gave government permission to bring the poisonous waste into Cambodia and then dump it outside Siha­noukville, one of the nation’s most popular recreational areas.

The only person to spend time in jail following revelations of the importation was a Cambodian businessman, Sam Moeun of the Muth Vuthy Import Co, who served seven months and paid a fine of $1,315. Two Taiwanese businessmen and a Cambodian-Chinese translator were convicted but never arrested. Three government officials were tried at the same time for conspiring to damage the environment but were acquitted.

Twenty-nine of the 33 suspended customs officers had worked in Sihanoukville and will be assigned to other provinces, with some working at Phnom Penh and at Pochentong Airport.

They are not being sent back to their former posts “to avoid jealousy among suspended customs officers and officers who are took their position,” Khun Nhim said. The other four officers worked in the Phnom Penh customs office at the time of the dumping scandal.

While the Finance Ministry committee conducted its investigation, the suspended employees still received their salaries. They were required to report to work during the suspensions, though they were given no duties, Ngy Tay Ea said.

Soon after the toxic waste was discovered at a dump outside Sihanoukville in December 1998, customs officials told investigators that the decision to allow the waste into Cambodia came from high-ranking officials in Phnom Penh.

As citizens demonstrated against the dumping and thousands fled the area fearing for their health, the government swiftly suspended more than 100 officials. Several government sources said at the time that the top officials approved the importing of the waste and that several made handsome profits though the allegations were never proven.

Government critics have complained that low-level employees were being blamed for the dumping and being made scapegoats while the powerful officials who approved the deal were not prosecuted.

In Saroeun, customs director at the time, was the highest official suspended in the case. He was later charged but acquitted, with the court saying customs officials could not know that the shipment, labeled cement cake, held toxic waste. He has since been reassigned to the Ministry of Interior. The two others tried and acquitted were Lonh Vannak, a customs pricing official, and Pheng Chheng, a top official with the Commerce Ministry’s product inspection unit, Camcontrol.

Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics Corp removed its waste in April, 1999, and after the US and France refused to take it, it finally was accepted back into Taiwan.

Though no direct links have been made between the mercury-tainted waste and health problems, several villagers who scavenged through the rubble at the dump complained of being sick and one port worker who handled the waste died.




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