I was excited several years ago with the announcement that South Korean-owned MH Bio-Energy would be opening a bioethanol refinery in Kandal province. The refinery seemed like a great opportunity for Cambodia to move up the value-added chain. Rather than sell unprocessed oil palm or cassava, Cambodia would be able to produce a high-demand, finished product for export.
I am not a scientist, but with a bit of research to refresh my memory of environmental science, the perils of bioethanol are both predictable and probably manageable as long as those asking the questions know which questions to ask.
The Phnom Penh Post (April 7, 2010, “More fish killed near Kandal ethanol plant”) has reported on the death of approximately 80 tonnes of fish within the last month in Kandal’s Ponhea Leu district near MH Bio-Energy’s bioethanol plant. Investigations by government officials and news reporters seem to focus on finding evidence of chemical spills, which will likely prove to be non-existent, and fish will continue to die, and local fishermen will continue to struggle to earn a living.
The “bad smelling liquid and gas waste” being reported by area officials and residents is due to the organic effluent being released into the water body prior to detoxification. According to Eric Wakker’s 2005 report for Friends of the Earth, Greasy Palm Oil pages 25-26, “because of its high biological oxygen demand (BOD), palm oil mill effluent is highly polluting to waterways and has significant negative effects on aquatic life downriver.” Basically, the organic (non-chemical) sludge that is the waste from the bioethanol refining process sucks the oxygen out of the main water body as it works to naturally detoxify itself. The result is that fish and other aquatic life die, not due to chemical spills, but rather the lack of oxygen.
Again, I’m no scientist and the report by Wakker quoted above relates to the environmental destruction caused by palm oil refining in Malaysia and Indonesia, rather than cassava refining in Cambodia, but I believe any organic sludge requires a great deal of oxygen to neutralize itself. Looking for evidence of chemical spills is a red herring that only serves to divert attention and questions away from the real issue.
I hope that those more learned than myself can, if necessary, correct my sketchy recollections of environmental science such that news reporters, government officials and Cambodian citizens may be able to ask the right questions of MH Bio-Energy.
In turn, by adding oxygen to the effluent prior to releasing it to the main water body, MH Bio-Energy can easily reduce harm being experienced by local fishermen and the refinery itself can do what we hoped it could – that is, to make a positive contribution to the development of Cambodia.
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