Waste fiasco piles woe on Cambodia

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The Independent Online
WHAT MORE can go wrong in a country that has survived genocide and civil war? The answer in Cambodia was the arrival of 3,000 tons of toxic waste from Taiwan.

The Cambodian government, led by Hun Sen, has never been shy about making money fast, and has not shown itself to be fussy about how it is made. However, the scheme to allow a Taiwanese company, Formosa Plastics Group, to dump waste near the coastal city of Sihanoukville has badly misfired. At the beginning of the week the powerful Taiwanese petrochemical company said it would take back the waste and send it to another country, probably the United States, where facilities exist for its safe disposal.

There has been trouble since the waste was discreetly shipped to Cambodia in November. In Sihanoukville riots erupted in which one person was killed as protesters sacked offices of staff blamed for allowing the material into the country. Another four people died as panic broke out and 10,000 residents fled the town, seeking to get away from the waste dumping ground.

In the docks where the waste was unloaded a worker died after cleaning the hold of the ship carrying the material and another five fell ill and were taken to hospital. Villagers scavenging among the waste and recovering plastic bags containing compressed ash from an incinerator found they were taking home material that poisoned them. The villagers are dirt-poor and survive on supplies from the World Food Programme. When they saw trucks arriving they thought they were being sent shelter and bedding materials.

Formosa Plastics, which could not dump the waste in its own backyard because of the fear of protests, initially insisted that the material was not toxic. Later it admitted that some of it might slightly exceed safety standards.

However, Georg Peterson, the World Health Organisation's representative in Cambodia, said tests had found "extremely high" levels of inorganic mercury in the waste. Although it carries the threat of blood poisoning, tests done by the organisation have not shown poisoning symptoms in the blood and urine of port workers and soldiers who handled the waste.

It is therefore unclear how villagers were affected by the waste and it is not really known how toxic the material is. The government sealed off the village where the bulk of the waste was dumped and refused access to independent observers.

Access was also denied to a team led by Tseng Cheng-nung, a Taiwanese legislator who has close relations with Cambodia. The team included Formosa Plastics Group officials who were trying to collect samples for testing. Cambodian officials said they could not be allowed to enter the waste dump because they failed to wear protective clothing.

Now the waste is being put into sealed barrels.

Lee Chih-tsun, a senior Formosa Plastics officials, said: "We plan to ship the waste out of Cambodia to either the United States or Europe, where disposal technology is sophisticated".

But it is not clear when the waste can be moved and negotiations are still continuing between the company and the Cambodian government over shipping arrangements. Wang Yung-ching, the powerful patriarch who chairs Formosa Plastics, has sent a letter of apology to the Cambodian government.

It seems that this is the end of another of Cambodia's get-rich-quick schemes. That leaves drug-smuggling and illegal logging - which is wreck- ing the environment - as alternatives which have yet to be curbed.

In the area around Sihanoukville the residents have received no compensation and those suffering from contamination are not being treated.