Unexploded Chemical Drums Buried Under School for Years

Authorities alerted to two chemical-filled drums that were buried decades ago beneath the grounds of a primary school and pagoda in Svay Rieng province are preparing a plan to excavate them, officials said on Tuesday.

Villagers knew about the drums, which were dropped by U.S. military helicopters in the 1970s, but only reported them this month due to fears they would begin to corrode and leak, the officials said.

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Workers assess the site of buried unexploded ordnance in Svay Rieng province. (Cambodian Mine Action Center)

“Unfortunately, they did not report to us earlier,” said Heng Ratana, director-general of the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC).

Some villagers reported experiencing headaches, vomiting and itchy skin, he said. “They had effects from it and they tried to put more soil on top of it.”

The center believes the drums contain the chemical 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile, or CS, a main component of tear gas, Mr. Ratana said.

Until operations to remove and dispose of the drums begin, the pagoda and school, which more than 200 children attend, will remain open, Mr. Ratana said.

“When we start operations, we will let them know,” he said, adding that CMAC hoped to minimize the effects of their operation on local residents.

“We will try to ensure that the people living around that area are very safe,” Mr. Ratana said. “People are still living there, and the school building is very close to the bomb holes.”

Tenh Chea, Romeas Hek district governor, said he asked CMAC officials to remove the drums on January 12. But he knew they had been buried in the pagoda compound since they failed to explode after being dropped by U.S. helicopters in 1970.

“Monks dug the ground and buried them about 2 meters deep,” Mr. Chea said. “According to CMAC, if they are removed from the ground, they could leak out and cause itches and rashes.”

“If they are kept in the ground any longer, we are afraid that the barrels could rot and pose a danger,” he added.

Dom Sam Orn, chief of Koki commune, said he was about 1 km away when the barrels were dropped from the sky in 1970.

“If one exploded, we had to lie down in the trench for an hour before [the chemicals] faded away with the wind,” he said.

roeun@cambodiadaily.com, surrusco@cambodiadaily.com

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