Those responsible for importing suspected toxic waste into Cambodia will be prosecuted and forced to pay millions of dollars in compensation to the state and victims, Environment Minister Mok Mareth promised on state-run TVK Wednesday.
But a legal expert noted the environmental law has no provision prohibiting the import of toxic waste.
Meanwhile, it was unclear Wednesday afternoon exactly how the materials would be officially tested, and how soon.
Mok Mareth and other environmental officials indicated that the UN Development Program has agreed to pay for the analysis, and Singapore has been asked for help. The Singaporean embassy in Phnom Penh confirmed it had been contacted.
But Heng Nareth, deputy director of Cambodia’s pollution control department, said Wednesday afternoon that a sample already had been sent to Hong Kong to be tested unofficially.
Environmental officials fear a 3,000-ton shipment of waste shipped in from Taiwan and dumped earlier this month just outside Sihanoukville contains toxic waste, but Cambodia does not have the equipment or expertise to analyze the waste.
In his statement on TVK, Mok Mareth said he believes the matrial, described on customs documents as construction waste, must be toxic because of the cost of shipping it to Cambodia. Heng Nareth also said the tops of the bags were marked with skulls and crossbones, signifying hazardous matter.
“In fact, we prohibit any import of waste into the country,” Mok Mareth said on TVK. Whether the waste is toxic or not, “we will ask the company to take it back.”
Mok Mareth also appealed to residents of the area not to go near the dump site, which consists mostly of gray and white stones and fine dirt.
Villagers already have scavenged the rubble for many of the bags that contained the waste. A pollution-control investigative team heard reports last week of villagers suffering from skin rashes and other ailments, but those reports could not be independently confirmed on Monday.
Ira Dassa, former legal adviser to the National Assembly, said Wednesday that the country’s environmental law promulgated in 1996 called for subdecrees on pollution, but such subdecrees were never issued.
Instead, Mok Mareth and others have been referring to a statement made in 1996 by Prime Minister Hun Sen that waste imports would not be allowed. Dassa, however, said a democracy should rule by law rather than by a prime minister’s statement. “It should be illegal and I’m glad they are investigating,” he said of hazardous waste dumping. And “if it turns out this waste is toxic or hazardous, I’m sure they will find some way to prosecute or take legal action.”
Legal experts said the government could prosecute for fraudulent representation.
(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)