The government said Thursday that Formosa Plastics Corp of Taiwan has signed an agreement to remove toxic waste from Cambodia within 60 days or face fines escalating to $5,000 a day.
An increase in the penalty structure was the only substantive change from an agreement drafted earlier in the week, which had called for penalties of up to only $2,000 a day.
The draft had been criticized by a number of legal experts for failing to provide adequate compensation to possible victims of the mercury-tainted waste, which was dumped outside Sihanoukville in December. As in the draft, the final, four-page agreement calls for Formosa to give medical treatment only to those judged by an independent physician to have been poisoned by waste.
Neither non-medical compensation to victims nor compensation to Cambodia for environmental damages was included in the final agreement, but government negotiator Om Yentieng said the agreement didn’t rule out the possibility of future negotiations with Formosa. Company President Lee Chih-tsun, however, made it clear in a brief interview earlier in the week that Formosa has no intention to pay compensation.
At a press conference at the Council of Ministers, Om Yentieng, also a senior adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen, said removing the waste was the government’s priority in the negotiations and he scolded journalists for harping on the compensation issue.
“Now a dead body stays in our house,” he said of the waste, which remains in containers outside the seaside resort. “Will we keep it swollen and smelly?”
Om Yentieng said in an interview after the press conference that he didn’t know where Formosa plans to send the waste. “That’s not my affair,” he said.
Formosa representatives already had left Phnom Penh, and none of the other members of the Cambodian negotiating committee attended Thursday afternoon’s press conference.
Legal Aid of Cambodia said Thursday evening that it had suggested to government officials as far back as Jan 29 that Cambodia might have been able to force Formosa to take back the waste by seeking a court order in Taiwan.
Despite initial denials from Formosa that the nearly 3,000 tons of industrial waste was toxic, a number of independent tests have concluded that it contains a high concentration of mercury.
Dozens of port workers and villagers have complained of being sick, but several deaths including two shortly after the dumping haven’t been linked conclusively to mercury poisoning. Additional tests and health assessments are being conducted.
If Formosa doesn’t remove the waste from Cambodia in 60 days, the agreement calls for a penalty of $1,000 a day for 15 days. That fine goes up by increments of $1,000 every 15 days until it reaches a cap of $5,000 a day. That would mean that Formosa would pay roughly $1.5 million in penalties if it does not remove the waste for a year.
Michele Brandt, a legal consultant to Legal Aid of Cambodia, which is representing victims in the case, said Thursday evening that such penalties are “nothing” to a multinational giant such as Formosa.
Legal Aid has been sharply critical of the agreement requiring Formosa to pay only for medical care to victims, but not additional compensation such as loss of income. But Brandt said her initial reading is that Legal Aid still will be able to defend victims’ interests in a private court action.
Pollution Control Director Heng Nareth, who earlier had been part of a three-person Cambodian negotiating team in Taiwan, said he wasn’t involved in the final stages of the negotiations and didn’t know about the press conference to announce the agreement.
But he said that one of his main concerns about the draft was that the penalties were too low to motivate Formosa to remove the waste quickly.
A US-based environmental management company called CDM International will supervise the transport of the toxic waste out of Cambodia, according to the agreement.
Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng (CPP) was in Prey Veng and couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday evening. Cambodia’s other Deputy Prime Minister, Tol Lah of the Funcinpec Party, said he hadn’t had time to think about the toxic-waste agreement.
A government official said earlier this week that although some weren’t satisfied with the agreement, “this is a compromise with Formosa. If we didn’t accept this, there could be a delay, delay, delay and the waste would remain here.”