Officials at MH Bio-Energy deny that a broken water treatment system was the cause of a mass die-off of fish; villagers say livelihoods are under threat
THE Ministry of Industry issued a letter Monday ordering a South Korean ethanol plant in Kandal province's Duong village to suspend operations following complaints by local villagers that toxic waste discharged from the facility was polluting the environment and killing tens of thousands of fish in nearby waterways.
Ith Praing, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy, signed the letter forcing the temporary closure of MH Bio-Energy Group pending further investigation.
"The plant will be temporarily closed and production halted because it is producing bad-smelling liquid and gas waste that has caused harm to the health of local residents and has affected the natural environment," the letter stated.
The ministry was prepared to allow the plant to resume operations once an investigation proved the facility posed no threat to villagers or the environment, the letter added, but threatened permanent closure if the government determined that MH Bio-Energy had indeed contaminated the surrounding area.
Chao Bun Thong, chief of Duong village, said the suspension followed complaints by 29 families that the plant was leaking toxic fluids into Lake Samrong, killing tens of thousands of fish that villagers rely on for their livelihoods.
"Tonnes of fish have died since Saturday due to waste fluids from the plant," Chao Bun Thong said.
Seng Thim, head of the Bassac fisheries office in the province, confirmed Monday that fish totalling about 32 tonnes have died.
"Our initial conclusion is that the fish died from toxic pollutants in the lake that likely derive from the plant," Seng Thim said.
"When we evacuated the remaining fish from the lake, they did not die," he said.
"Now we are collecting water samples to test for contaminants," Seng Thim said.
Lam Yiang Try, 65, a fish farmer in Duong village, said he lost half his stock of fish.
"About 500 kilograms of my fish have been lost since Saturday. I have lost about US$2,000 in earnings," he said.
Lee Dong Jun, director of the MH Bio-Energy plant, declined to comment Monday.
But Sar Peov, head of the company's administration office, said that a malfunction in the plant's water treatment system had produced a discharge of untreated liquid waste.
"One of our water treatment systems broke down on Sunday, and untreated water escaped," he said.
Sar Peov added that the biofuel plant normally discharges only treated water into the Tonle Sap river, never untreated water.
"We are repairing the system and hope that it will be operational within a week," he said.
Despite acknowledging the leak, Sar Peov dismissed the possibility that wastewater from the plant had any harmful effect on fish.
"It is too early to conclude that the fish died because of wastewater from the plant," Sar Peov said.
"We will wait to see the results of the ministry's water tests in order to determine how they died," he added.
MH Bio-Energy said in June that it had completed Cambodia's first export of ethanol and characterised it as a major step forward for local biofuel production.
The company, founded in 2007 with a $30 million Korean investment, uses cassava and tapioca to produce ethanol for export, primarily to markets in Europe.
Ros Sopharith, a senior manager with the company, told the Post in June that MH Bio-Energy would also seek local distribution rights.
"I am prepared to ask government permission to sell ethanol locally because it can protect our environment," he said at the time.
"In the near future, we plan to double production capacity to meet global market demand," he added.
But complaints of pollution dogged the company in the months after its opening, when residents and district and village officials said leakage from a poorly designed waste pond of the company was responsible for poisoning and killing tonnes of fish in Lake Samrong.
Company officials at the time dismissed the complaints and suggested that residents with duck businesses might be to blame for releasing animal waste into the lake.