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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Legal loophole caused toxic waste import approval

Legal loophole caused toxic waste import approval

GOVERNMENT approval of the import of 25,000 tons of toxic asbestos and polychlorinated

biphenyls (PCBs) from Taiwan in 1997 apparently hinged on a combination of official

ignorance and legal loopholes.

The Post revealed in its last issue that the Taiwanese waste was approved for importation

to Cambodia by both Sar Ho, then Director of Customs. The Customs signature was certified

by the Director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Legal Section, Ros Kong.

The agreement to ship the waste was arranged by Bophary James Import and Export Co

Ltd of Phnom Penh and Jade Fortune International in Taipei.

Bophary James has apparently since gone out of business, while a representative of

Jade Fortune International was ambiguous about whether the waste was actually shipped

to Cambodia.

In an interview with the Post on Monday, Cambodian Environment Minister Dr Mok Mareth

blamed crucial gaps in waste legislation in 1977 on the government import approval.

According to Mareth, although the National Environmental Protection Law was passed

in 1996, two key provisions of the law - Article 16 and Article 17 - specifying the

kinds of toxic waste banned from importation were not passed until April 6, 1999,

and April 27, 1999, respectively.

"If you asked the Ministries of Commerce, Trade or Industry at that time [about

the importation of toxic waste], there were no classification [guidelines],"

Mareth explained.

"We didn't encourage importation [of toxic waste], but we didn't say no, either."

Mareth also blames a society-wide lack of understanding of the dangers of toxic waste

as another factor in the approval for importation of substances banned for importation

in the vast majority of developed countries.

"Thirty years of war have made it very hard for us to [make] people understand

about toxic waste," Mareth said, adding that recent efforts at environmental

education "can't reach everybody ... only people in the Ministry of Environment

could have understood the danger of that waste [in 1997]."

The Bophary James/Jade Fortune International proposed shipment of toxic waste was

apparently just one of many such proposals made in 1997.

"In 1997 many companies [wanted] to dump waste in Cambodia, but we never accepted

any of it," Mareth said.

Mareth personally doubts the Bophary James/Jade Fortune International toxic waste

shipment ever reached Cambodia.

"If they dumped that large an amount of waste in Cambodia, even in secret, we

would know about it ... our agents would have informed us of it," Mareth said.

"If they decided to dump it at sea, they could have done it anywhere without

coming to Cambodia."

Unfortunately, Mareth admits that he currently has no way of confirming whether or

not the waste actually was shipped to Cambodia.

Ministry of Environment officials are not allowed access to Ministry of Commerce

documents regarding imports.

"We proposed to the government that [the Environment Ministry] work closely

with the Ministry of Commerce, but the Council of Ministers rejected the idea,"

Mareth said.

Meanwhile, direct monitoring of ports by Environment Ministry officials is also forbidden.

"We have no officers in ports, so we have no capacity to control [the type]

of goods imported," Mareth said.

Mareth announced his intention to contact Cambodian Customs officials about the waste

shipment, but was not optimistic about getting satisfactory results. "Customs

will only know whether tax was paid [on the shipment]," Mareth said. "They

will not know about the destination [of the waste]."

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