Analysts Fear Waste Deal Abandons Victims

But Gov’t Negotiator Says Details Not Set

Legal analysts are concerned a draft agreement between the government and Formosa Plastics Corp to remove toxic waste doesn’t adequately protect victim rights or ensure speedy removal.

And although the US company tentatively chosen to monitor cleanup and  tra­n­­s­­port is well-respected, it was unclear Wednesday whether the company is completely neutral or has worked for Formosa before.

Legal Aid of Cambodia, which is representing victims of the waste scandal, said in a statement Wednesday it appreciated the opportunity to observe the ongoing negotiations be­tween the government and Formosa Plastics.

But Legal Aid said it objected to several provisions of the draft agreement, including one that is supposed to address the health issues of those who may have been harmed by the waste.

Specifically, Legal Aid said it objected to the fact Formosa “refused to consider compensation in this draft agreement to such victims but stated that it would ‘do medical treatment.’ ”

Legal Aid said it is unclear in the draft agreement where  Formosa Plastics would provide such medical care, and whether victims would have any say in where they would be treated.

And “without compensation for loss of income, a person who is too ill to work would have difficulty securing food or housing and therefore medical care alone is inadequate to address the needs of LAC’s clients,” Michele Brandt, a legal consultant for the group, said in the statement.

Om Yentieng, who leads the government negotiating team, defended the draft Tuesday night by saying that the most important goal of the government is to remove the waste. Matters of compensation could be pursued later, he said, emphasizing draft details could still be changed.

On Wednesday, Om Yentieng was reached twice by telephone but said he was too busy to discuss the negotiations or the contents of the draft in detail.

Medicins Sans Frontieres has concluded that the waste very likely poses a health risk, but said in January it couldn’t conclusively link deaths of a port worker and a villager to mercury poisoning.

The draft agreement also says that if the parties disagree on whether a Cambodian has been poisoned from the toxic waste, an independent physician acceptable to both parties must make a final determination.

There also is some question from the wording of the draft agreement whether claims by victims have to be filed before the signing of the agreement, one legal observer said Wednesday.

Legal Aid also expressed concerns about the “rapid pace of the negotiations encouraged” by Formosa. The statement noted that at the beginning of negotiations at 3 pm Monday, Formosa announced that it wanted a final agreement by the end of the day.

The parties reportedly met until about 3 am Tuesday to hammer out a draft agreement. Negotiations apparently have stalled since.

Robert Weiner, director of the protection program for the US-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, also expressed concern Wednesday about a hasty agreement to what is a complex case.

Legal experts, for example, have noted it still is unclear exactly how toxic the waste is. Num­er­ous tests of samples have shown the waste has high concentrations of mercury, but tests still are being conducted to determine if other toxins such as cancer-causing dioxin also are present.

“Obviously, the clean-up needs to be expedited,” Weiner said. But any agreement, he said, must include a method for independently assessing the damages, and must preserve the legal remedies of any victims.

The draft agreement appears to give Om Yentieng, an adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen, the sole power to decide whether to pursue further legal action, such as compensation.

Although government officials have said they want millions in compensation from Formosa, company President Lee Chih-tsun has been quoted as saying the issue was never broached during previous talks in Taiwan. And, on Tuesday evening in Phnom Penh, he said Formosa would not be willing to pay any.

It also was unclear Wednesday whether the draft agreement will be tough enough to persuade Formosa to remove the waste within 60 days. The deal lists fines of $1,000 a day for the first 15 days beyond the 60-day deadline, and $2,000 a day after that.

Formosa is one of Taiwan’s largest industrial companies, owned by one of Asia’s richest families, with an estimated wealth of $4.9 billion.

During a visit to Cambodia recently, the international environmental organizations Green­peace and Basel Action Network warned Formosa might delay removing the waste if not given a strict deadline. Legal observers also noted Wednesday that the draft agreement doesn’t detail the protocol for transporting the hazardous waste out of Cambodia.

What the agreement does say is the removal of the waste will be done according to the standards of the Basel Conven­tion, an agreement on the transportation of hazardous wastes worldwide.

The agreement also says that Formosa will remove the waste under the supervision of a company called CDM International Inc.

CDM International is a subsidiary of US-based Camp Dresser & McKee Inc, a more than 50-year-old environmental management firm with 2,700 employees in more than 90 offices worldwide. The company is known for its work with wastewater and solid and hazardous wastes. It won a top US environmental engineering award in 1997 for a ground water study.

It’s important to know whether CDM has been retained before by Formosa, which could affect its neutrality, said a hazardous waste expert who worked for the US Environmen­tal Protection Agency for five years.

If CDM’s Taiwan branch office does the monitoring, that also could be a factor, the expert said. The reasoning is that the firm might not be as likely to be tough if it might mean burning future business opportunities in Taiwan. CDM also has an office in Thai­land, according to the company’s home page on the Internet.

It was unclear Wednesday whether CDM had worked for Formosa, which has operations internationally including the US. Carol Rodley, first secretary for the US Embassy, confirmed Om Yentieng had asked the embassy what it knew about CDM, and whether it was reputable. Rodley said it was, noting CDM had worked for the US government.

“They are a very large, well-known firm, registered with the Environmental Protection Agency and they have done work for the US government.” She said Wednesday afternoon that she was preparing to report back to Om Yentieng.

Om Yentieng’s request for information, however, suggests that CDM was Formosa’s, not the Cambodian government’s, choice to monitor the waste removal.




Related Stories

Latest News

The Weekly DispatchA weekly newsletter from The Cambodia Daily delivering news, analysis and opinion to your inbox. Published every Friday at 11:30am. Sign up today.