Waste Study by WHO Used to Refute Claims Refutes Claims to Deny Claim

Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics Corp is balking at compensating possible toxic-waste victims in part because the company claims that a World Health Organization report said the waste was not dangerous, officials say.

While Formosa Plastics agreed last week to remove the mercury-tainted waste within 60 days, it rejected discussing compensation, claiming the waste was legal and claiming it had documents from WHO “proving” that the waste was not toxic.

Georg Petersen, WHO’s representative in Cambodia, on Wed­nesday called that rationale ridiculous. “That is just nonsense,” he said. “It is highly toxic waste, it is very dangerous waste. Again, it’s a misinterpretation of our report that it is not dangerous to the general population.”

Formosa Plastics, which produced the nearly 3,000 tons of waste dumped in the Sihanouk­ville area in December, held talks Friday in Taipei with a three-person Cambodian delegation.

Cambodia’s Pollution Control Director Heng Nareth said that Formosa negotiators insisted that the company’s personnel must determine whether the waste has done any harm before compensation is discussed.

“They said that if Cambodians were truly victimized by the toxic waste, it must be proved by the official Cambodian doctors,” Heng Nareth said. “Then For­mosa will send their own doctors here to verify. If they are able to verify that Cambodians were victimized by the waste, they will provide medical treatment. But they did not agree to pay them [victims] any money.”

One port worker died, five port workers were hospitalized, and many villagers near the site complained of being sick after handling the mercury-tainted waste.

While WHO concluded in late December that there was no danger to the general population, its report recommended the site be cordoned off, a nearby well closed and follow-up monitoring be initiated to determine possible long-term health risks. The now-controversial report was based on water-well and other tests done by the National Institute for Minamata Disease in Japan.

Petersen said in an interview at the time: “What we know today is not a major disaster. [But] it’s a serious problem that must be solved properly.”

In a follow-up mission, a Med­ecins Sans Frontieres team concluded the toxic waste “very likely” posed health risks. But the team concluded two deaths—the port worker and a 16-year-old villager who slept on bags containing the waste—couldn’t be directly linked to mercury poisoning. Tests are now being conducted to determine if there are other toxins in the waste as well.

Michele Brandt, a legal consultant for Legal Aid of Cambodia, representing possible victims, said Formo­sa should be required to pay for a thorough, independent health assessment.

Petersen said that the WHO is recommending continued monitoring, including an assessment of the groundwater near the site. He said WHO is funding that assessment.

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