sihanoukville – More than 150 soldiers donned high-tech protective suits, rubber boots, gloves and gas masks and ceremoniously began removing 3,000 tons of mercury-laced waste here Wednesday as government officials called for calm and compensation.
“We have to force this company to pay damages and compensation to Cambodia,” Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng said as he oversaw work. “Regarding this problem, I do not forgive anyone. Regarding this problem, we take action, not just pay lip service.”
Meanwhile, both Sar Kheng and Minister of Environment Mok Mareth tried to calm fears about the possible dangers of the waste, which came into Sihanoukville port on Nov 30 and was dumped four days later behind a district military police post 14 km outside the city center.
Although initial laboratory tests have shown that the waste has some concentration of mercury, the exact toxicity will not be known for a few days, Mok Mareth said. Radioactivity was ruled out by a Thai nuclear physicist on Tuesday, and Mok Mareth said the waste poses no health risks to Sihanoukville residents.
“I think people now can start to come back,” he said, in reference to the thousands who have reportedly fled the area. State-run TVK on Wednesday rebroadcast his assurance to local residents that the “beach, the drinking water, the fish, as well as the air are not affected.”
Wednesday’s waste removal got off to a slow start, with workers wilting from wearing the protective suits while waiting for Sar Kheng to land in his helicopter and conduct an inauguration ceremony. Also in attendance were RCAF Chief of General Staff Ke Kim Yan and Deputy Chief of Staff Pol Saroeun.
Scores of other military personnel were posted in the area.
Before the ceremony, music blasted from speakers and commanders barked orders at the troops. Besides complaining of the heat, the soldiers appeared relaxed and said they were not afraid of working at the site.
The first shift lasted only about 15 minutes and consisted of filling only a few oil drums. At least one worker suffering from apparent heat exhaustion had to be helped from the site. Officials have said it could take up to 10 days to remove all the waste.
The rubble, which resembles stone and dirt, is to be placed into an estimated 13,000 to 15,000 plastic-lined oil drums, then transferred to larger containers.
Sar Kheng said the government would be working with Taiwan to get the waste out of Cambodia as soon as possible.
On Monday, Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics said it would be willing to take the industrial waste back, but company officials continued to maintain that it is not toxic. The waste was encased in cement for 20 years before being shipped to Cambodia without approval by Taiwanese environmental authorities. Formosa Plastics was fined $1,000 by Taiwan for the unauthorized shipment.
Villagers near the dump site have complained of diarrhea and dizziness, and one port worker has been confirmed dead. But a direct link to the waste has not been made. The reports, however, prompted thousands to flee, sparked violent protests and caused area schools to close.
More than 20 government officials have been suspended amid the controversy over the shipment, which was identified innocuously on shipping documents as “cement cake” or construction waste. Prime Minister Hun Sen and acting Head of State Prince Norodom Ranariddh have been told that a $3 million bribe may have been paid to allow the industrial waste into Cambodia. An investigation is under way.
A Taiwanese environmental NGO also monitored the cleanup Wednesday. “The Taiwanese don’t want waste dumped in our area, but we don’t want the [reputation of] dumping in Cambodia [either],” said TJ Wu, a spokesman for the group.
The shipment has catapulted the issue of hazardous waste into the public spotlight, and also has highlighted Cambodia’s vulnerability as a dumping ground. For example, Cambodia does not have the equipment or expertise to analyze the waste itself, and has scrambled for outside help.
A team from the Thai Army’s chemical department examined the site Tuesday and Wednesday and is taking samples back to Thailand to be analyzed thoroughly.
Colonel Chalermsuk Yugala, a member of the Thai team, agreed this is a significant test case for Cambodia. “It’s a wake-up call for Cambodia and not a very pleasant one,” he said.