After grabbing international headlines last month by warning of an imminent mass evacuation to remove a pair of tear gas bombs dropped on Cambodia by the U.S. decades ago, the government now says the drums will stay put until donors come up with an extra $300,000.
Last month, the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC), the government’s main demining operator, said it had recently been alerted to the drums—both containing the chemical CS, a main component of tear gas—by locals in Svay Rieng province. It said hundreds would soon have to be evacuated to dig them up safely.
That job has fallen to the National Authority for the Prohibition of Chemical, Nuclear, Biological and Radiological Weapons (NACW), a unit of the Defense Ministry.
General Chhey Sun, the NACW’s secretary-general, said on Wednesday that a team was still assessing the site, but backpedaled on CMAC’s initial claims.
Instead of the 3 km evacuation radius it had predicted, the general said, the excavation would require no evacuation at all, and could be done in a matter of weeks.
But Gen. Sun said his unit lacked the money to remove the drums, and had no imminent prospects of finding it. He estimated the cost of clearing the one site to be $500,000, but soon knocked it down to $300,000.
“The cleanup will move ahead when we have the money in our hands,” he said. “We need to spend money on the work teams, protective suits and substances to clean up the CS. We need people to clean it up and we need money. It is not like going to the rice field and catching frogs or crabs. The barrels can pose a danger at any time, so we must be very careful.”
The general said the ministry had yet to allocate any money for the job. He hoped the countries that have to date paid for the bulk of the work to clear Cambodia of its old landmines and conventional unexploded ordnance—including Australia, Japan and the U.S.—would also come up with the money for the CS barrels. The NACW has yet to ask.
Gen. Sun said CMAC had spoken too soon when it warned of an imminent mass evacuation last month. The announcement, however, coincided conveniently with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s renewed efforts to shame the U.S. into canceling its war-era loans to Cambodia by reminding the country of the massive bombing campaign it had unleashed on the country during the 1960s and 1970s. Mr. Hun Sen’s government has refused to start paying back the loans, which have nearly doubled due to interest accrued over the decades and now stand at about $500 million.
According to a 2007 report in the Army Chemical Review, a publication of the U.S. Army Chemical Corps, the U.S. sent an estimated 8.2 million kg of riot control agents to Vietnam between 1962 and 1972, most of it some version of CS.
It says the chemicals would sometimes be deployed using large drums that were rolled out of helicopters and detonated just above the forest canopy to flush out Viet Cong forces. Some of the barrel bombs failed to explode and were redeployed by the Viet Cong against U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. Others have remained where they fell.
According to CMAC, there are now 38 known CS sites across eastern Cambodia dating back to the Second Indochina War. None of them have been cleaned up.
CS can induce tears, dizziness, vomiting and even blistering, and the old barrels are still believed to pose a health risk. But Gen. Sun said he could not reveal whether any of the known sites have been linked to any illnesses because it was a “sensitive issue.”
In 2012, the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh acknowledged that two newly discovered CS drums appeared to be of U.S. origin and offered to help Cambodia “resolve this problem.” The NACW sent the embassy a formal request for help a year later, but as of mid-2014 was still waiting for an answer.
The U.S. did reply eventually. Contacted for comment last week, embassy spokesman David Josar said its response was a training program for the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) “on how to identify, render safe and dispose of CS canisters.” He said the program ran from 2015 to last year and ended with a field exercise in Mondolkiri province.
“The training also addressed how to clean up any type of chemical spill that could occur as a result of an accident or due to a natural disaster,” Mr. Josar said.
Gen. Sun said the “pilot” program trained three RCAF officers. He urged the U.S. to do more, and said it could start by paying to remove the two barrels in Svay Rieng.
“The U.S. should help us because it dropped the CS barrels on Cambodia,” he said. “There is not enough money from the U.S.”
The U.S. dropped at least 500,000 tons of ordnance on Cambodia during the 1960s and 1970s. Since the 1990s, it has spent over $114 million in an ongoing effort to help clear the country of both bombs and mines.