More than a year since the country introduced laws to control industrial pollution, observers say Cambodia is making progress, but it still has more to do if it is to avoid the problems now facing its more industrialized neighbors.
Prompted by a scandal over the dumping of tons of imported toxic waste in Sihanoukville in 1998, the government last year passed a series of laws aimed at preventing that kind of disaster from happening again.
“The government now seems to be more aware of the impact of pollution from industry,” said Vann Piseth, head of The Cultural and Environmental Preservation Association, a local NGO.
Yet while the government talks about plans to prevent problems, it often doesn’t act on them, he said. “The law is on paper, but the fact is very different,” he said.
At the moment, industry is small-scale, and the problems are relatively minor compared to countries such as Thailand and the Philippines. But Vann Piseth said he worries “about what Phnom Penh will be like in five years.”
Officials at the Ministry of Environment, which is charged with carrying out the law, say they run into obstacles enforcing it.
One problem is that the ministry often can’t act independently to punish factories who violate regulations, said Chea Sina, deputy director of the Ministry’s pollution department.
“Before we make a decision, we have to invite all the relevant ministries to discuss it,” he said.
Violators face fines of between $260 and $2,600, and they can be suspended, shut down permanently or taken to court for criminal prosecution, Chea Sina said.
So far the Ministry has fined 16 factories around Phnom Penh, and has warned two others to make improvements to prevent noise, air and water pollution by next year or else face suspension, he said.
One factory that has repeatedly ignored the rules, officials and local residents said, is Fu Hing garment factory, located in a dense residential area in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kok district.
More than two-and-a-half years since the factory first promised to cut down on pollution, local residents said recently the noise and fumes still haven’t abated.
“We are desperate,” said a local vendor who asked not to be named. She said she is kept awake by noise from the plant’s generator and has trouble breathing because of smoke.
“[We have made complaints] to the relevant ministries. Nothing has happened. It is worthless to file more complaints, because officials are paid off to be ignorant.”
A spokesman for Fu Hing who asked not to be named said the factory has stopped polluting—a claim Chea Sina refutes. The factory has run into financial problems, he said, and hasn’t been able to make the improvements demanded of it.
If in three months Fu Hing still hasn’t complied, Ministry officials will discuss the case with the ministries of Labor and Industry before deciding what penalty to impose.
But despite the factory’s intransigence, the government is reluctant to shut it down.
“We cannot look only at [it only in terms of] the environment and forget about the 650 workers who depend on the factory for jobs, and whose families depend on them for a living,” Chea Sina said.
Chea Sina said he would like the factory to move out of the residential area, but right now there’s nowhere for it to go.
In fact most Cambodian factories are in residential areas in and around Phnom Penh, Chea Sina said, creating a nuisance for local homeowners.
It’s a problem that—for the moment—can’t be fixed. Pollution monitors can’t order factories to move until the Ministry of Urbanization develops a plan for a new industrial zone in Phnom Penh, Chea Sina said.
Another problem is that the ministry has only basic laboratory equipment to do tests of industrial waste.
For more sophisticated tests, samples have to be sent abroad, as was the case recently, when Australian technicians discovered that a series of poisonings in Siem Reap province thought to be caused by toxic waste turned out to be the result of eating deadly pufferfish.
Alex Yang, owner of Tai Yang Garments in Kandal province, claimed the ministry’s testing isn’t accurate.
Yang said his factory invested $2 million in a waste-water purifying system last year, in part to comply with the stringent standards of one of its major US buyers—Gap.
Waste water treated at his plant has passed tests in Singapore and the US, he said, but still gets flunked by the Cambodian authorities.
“Their standard is much higher than the standard in the advanced countries,” he said.
But Chea Sina says Cambodia’s standards are comparable with other countries in the region, and in fact are lower than richer countries, such as Singapore.
Tai Yang’s water purity was only slightly below Cambodia’s standard, and the ministry imposed a small fine, Chea Sina said. The factory was releasing untreated sewage into a catchment basin, a problem it is now working to correct, he said.
Garment Manufacturers Association President Roger Tan said that although some of his members gripe over the regulations, most are willing to cooperate.
“The investors here are long-term investors,” he said. “We all know there are certain responsibilities on our part.”
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