sihanoukville – Environmental officials say they suspect that a new dump site found about15 km outside the town center contains hazardous wastes shipped from Taiwan.
About 3,000 tons of materials described in customs documents as “construction waste” arrived by boat on Nov 30 and were dumped four days later behind a district military police post on the outskirts of Sihanoukville, according to officials. The area is in an important watershed and near Ream National Park.
Top Cambodian environmental officials said Sunday that the waste needs to be analyzed by an outside expert because Cambodia lacks the equipment to do the tests itself.
But they said they suspect that the innocuous-looking rubble of stones and dirt actually includes compressed ash from an industrial waste incinerator and contains chemicals hazardous to health.
Environment Minister Mok Mareth called for a parliamentary investigation and pledged to take the offenders to court.
“We will investigate who authorized the import of toxic waste into Cambodia in this remote area,” Mok Mareth said Sunday. “Who authorized this should be punished. The import of toxic waste is prohibited in the country.”
A pollution-control official said he had heard reports of villagers who had scavenged the area suffering from skin rashes and other symptoms, but those reports couldn’t be independently verified Monday.
The new dump site brings into sharp focus the vulnerability of Third World countries such as Cambodia to the tempting offers to take hazardous waste generated by the industrialized world.
Custom officials in Sihanoukville told a government environmental investigative team that high
[JUMP HEAD: Toxic]
high-ranking officials from Phnom Penh had approved the deal. A Cambodian company was listed on customs documents and will be investigated, Mok Mareth said. The value of the deal was not immediately known.
Environmental officials said they were tipped off to the site by a report last week in the Khmer-language newspaper, Koh Santepheap (Island of Peace). Last Thursday, a four-person team was sent from Phnom Penh’s pollution control department to investigate.
Heng Nareth, deputy director of Cambodia’s pollution control department, said Sunday that the waste was not nuclear.
“I can say I believe it comes from an industrial waste incinerator plant” and contains some heavy metals such as mercury, zinc, chrome or lead that could seriously affect human health, he said.
“It could affect the groundwater and surface water quality for a long time” if not properly disposed of, he said.
Heng Nareth said the Ministry of Environment does not have the equipment or expertise to analyze the waste. On Monday, officials indicated that they would ask the UN Development Program to assist the government in seeking help from Singapore or Thailand.
The waste was shipped in 100-kilogram polyester bags labeled as originating from a plastics company in Taiwan. It was trucked to the site after arriving in port, provincial environmental officials said Monday.
No warning signs were posted at the site Monday morning, and an 18-year-old barefoot Cambodian man was rummaging through the rubble.
The man, Sin Son, said he had come to the area after learning that villagers had found sacks there useful as rice bags. “But now, I’m afraid to come here again,” he said, after being told about the health risk.
The rubble consisted of mostly gray and white stones and fine dirt. Dumped about 500 meters in from National Road 4, the wasted filled an area roughly 30 meters by 40 meters
Heng Nareth said customs documents indicated the shipment was of construction waste. “But if it is just construction waste, why spend all the money for transportation to Cambodia?” he asked.
He said some of the villagers who had scavenged through the area had complained of skin rashes and diarrhea. But several villagers interviewed Sunday afternoon and Monday morning said they had not heard of such problems.
Environmental officials acknowledged Sunday that the government has been bombarded by offers in recent months to import waste from developed countries. Mok Mareth said the government rejected the offers. But he said he has heard reports that waste has been dumped in the sea just off the coast of Cambodia in international waters.
About nine months ago, a document seen by sources close to the Ministry of Environment stated that 10,000 tons of hazardous materials a month would be arriving in 55-gallon drums and ocean-pack containers.
But Mok Mareth reiterated Sunday that the government had rejected that deal, which he said was a high-tech waste incineration project to generate electricity.
“Cambodia is not [going to become] a dumping site for toxic waste,” Mok Mareth said. “[If it becomes one], it will kill the people of this generation.”