Ministry of Industry experts declared in early December that waste from Taiwan was merely cement and ceramic materials, even though they didn’t have the equipment to analyze the materials properly, documents show.
A two-page letter dated Dec 18 from Customs Director In Saroeun to the Ministry of Finance details the Customs Department’s justification for allowing the 3,000 tons of mercury-tainted waste to be unloaded at Sihanoukville port.
The letter, which was written in response to newspaper reports that the waste was possibly toxic, states that Sihanoukville customs officers were asked on Dec 3 to bring a sample of the waste to be tested at the Ministry of Industry. According to the letter, a mine expert official at Industry determined Dec 4 that the gray stone contained materials that could be made into cement, while the white stones contained materials that could be made into ceramics.
Based in part on that information, the shipment was permitted to be unloaded from the port. It was dumped beginning Dec 4 behind a military police post 14 km outside Sihanoukville town.
The letter from Customs also said the Ministry of Industry was asked to test a sample again on Dec 8, with the same results. Then, in a Dec 14 meeting, Industry officials again reiterated to customs officials that the stones were materials that could be made into cement and ceramics.
“Through consulting and many analyses…there is no reason to say that the stone contains toxic materials as charged by some papers,” the Dec 18 letter states.
Yet, the government didn’t have the equipment necessary to test the waste for toxicity. Samples tested in laboratories outside the country later showed the waste contained high concentrations of mercury.
In Saroeun has said he thought the shipment was cement materials. He is one of nine officials who Sihanoukville Prosecutor Mam Muth said should be questioned and possibly charged in the case.
(Additional reporting by Khuy Sokhoeun)