The 3,000 tons of waste dumped earlier this month in the Sihanoukville area consists of 20-year-old sludge tainted with the highly toxic metal mercury, Taiwanese environmental officials said Thursday.
At a news conference in Taipei, government officials announced that a Taiwanese plastics company had been fined $1,000 for shipping the waste, which it considers to be now harmless, to Cambodia without approval.
“If Cambodia determines the waste is [still] toxic and entered Cambodia illegally, we will ask Formosa Plastics to retrieve it” and impose a stiffer fine, Fu Shu-chiang of Taiwan’s Environmental Protection Department said at the news conference.
Environment Minister Mok Mareth said Thursday he would insist the shipment be sent back.
“It is very dangerous. It is called hazardous waste,” Mok Mareth said. “We cannot let the waste be buried or unloaded [in Cambodia]. Mercury can cause poison. If the poison infiltrates the soil, it will be a big problem, and it will ooze into the watershed. The waste has to be shipped back.”
A Formosa Plastics executive told The Associated Press in Taiwan that there was “no way” that the company would take the waste back.
Formosa Plastics applied to ship the waste—which was left over from treating alkaline with mercury and had been encased in cement in Taiwan for two decades—to Cambodia in October.
But the application was rejected by Taiwanese environmental officials because the company did not have a Cambodia import permit and the materials were not correctly labeled. The company applied again in November, but the Taiwanese government was still reviewing the case when the waste was shipped.
Tin Ponlok, national project manager for the UN Development Program’s Environmental Technical Advisory Program in Phnom Penh, also was skeptical Thursday that the waste is now harmless. “As far as I know, this chemical cannot be degraded easily.”
Upon a request by the UNDP, Singapore has agreed to organize a team of experts to analyze the materials, which now look like stones and dirt. Official test results are expected within about a week, Tin Ponlok said. A sample taken Wednesday to Hong Kong by a businessman is being tested unofficially.
The announcement from Taipei on Thursday confirmed the suspicions of Cambodian Pollution Control Department Deputy Director Heng Nareth, who said Sunday that he suspected that the waste contained heavy metals such as mercury.
There have been unconfirmed reports of illnesses among villagers who took bags from the dump site to store rice.
Initial exposure to mercury can cause gums to bleed, teeth to ache and alternating bouts of diarrhea and constipation. Over a longer period of time, symptoms can include joint pain, chronic fatigue, headaches, visual and hearing problems, and birth defects. If repeatedly ingested over a long time period, mercury can cause permanent damage to the brain, liver and kidneys.
Regardless of whether the waste still is toxic, the shipment has brought the issue of hazardous waste into the public spotlight. Mok Mareth briefed Cambodians on Wednesday on state-run TVK, and Tin Ponlok said Thursday that the current controversy points to the need for education on the long-term effects of toxics such as mercury.
Cambodia’s porous borders, plus the absence of a law prohibiting the import of toxic waste, make it vulnerable as a dumping ground for companies in industrialized countries with stiff environmental regulations and landfill space constraints. At least two multimillion-dollar offers have been rejected by Cambodian officials in the past year, but it is unknown whether other loads have secretly made it through.
“Some people from abroad have come to see me, but we have never agreed with them to bring waste into Cambodia,” Mok Mareth said Thursday. “They use many means [to try] to bring waste into Cambodia.”
About nine months ago, the Council of Ministers appeared on the verge of approving a $300 million waste-to-energy plant in the Sihanoukville area that would have involved regular imports of hazardous waste. A Western environmental official contacted at the time said that it would be extraordinarily difficult for a developing country such as Cambodia to properly monitor such a plant.
Mok Mareth acknowledged Sunday that he has heard reports of waste being dumped into the ocean near the Cambodian coast.
In the case of the Sihanoukville site, environmental officials said they were tipped off by a report in the Khmer-language Koh Santepheap (Island of Peace) newspaper. An initial investigation last week by a four-person pollution-control team found that a shipment identified in customs documents as construction waste came into Sihanoukville’s port Nov 30. Four days later, the waste was trucked and dumped behind a military police post 15 km outside town.
Customs officials told the team that high-ranking officials from Phnom Penh had approved the deal, but no one has yet been singled out for responsibility.
A team from the ministries of Environment, Interior, and Parliamentary Relations and Inspection is scheduled to travel to Sihanoukville today to start a formal investigation.
Mok Mareth has promised that offenders will be punished and be forced to pay millions of dollars in compensation to the state and any victims.
In Saroeun, Cambodia’s customs director, on Thursday said the responsibility for allowing the shipment into Cambodia rested with Camcontrol, which is charged with product inspection.
“We, customs, know only how to collect tax,” In Saroeun said. “We only asked them to pay tax. We do not know what it is. How could we ban it from being imported?” In Saroeun did not say how much tax was collected.
Camcontrol officials in Sihanoukville could not be reached for comment Thursday.
(Additional reporting by Deutsche Presse-Agentur in Taiwan)