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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Paradise Poisoned

Paradise Poisoned

NOTHING TO FEAR?

or just being cautious, Cambodian workers suit up to begin clearing the dump site.

Sihanoukville has been dusted in mercury-contaminated poison more widely and more

thoroughly than the existence of a single, 2,799-ton dump site suggests.

It is too soon to say the town's tourism and fishing industries will be ruined or

that sickness and birth defects will haunt this community for years to come, as has

happened in other communities around the world poisoned by mercury.

However, it's also too soon for Cambodian leaders to claim, as they are doing to

allay mounting local hysteria, that water systems, soils and fish have been unaffected.

Hong Kong scientists have confirmed that the waste from one of Taiwan's biggest chemical

factories, Formosa Plastics, contains mercury and other heavy metals, but at Post

press time the Ministry of Environment is still waiting to know exactly in what quantities,

and therefore how harmful it is.

The timely and massive media exposure of waste dumped at a single site - correctly

disclosing as it did a multi-million dollar conspiracy of deceit involving Taiwanese

businessmen and Cambodian officials - suggests a problem that might have been isolated

and somehow able to be cleaned up; a problem perhaps caught just in time before it

got worse.

A man bumps his bullock-driven cart past

Sihanoukville's toxic dump site.

However, the Post has found that:

- the township - a tourist favorite because of its beautiful beaches and seafood

- was powdered with waste from up to 90 uncovered trucks working for - depending

on different port officials and local testimony - between four to seven days and

nights unloading the Taiwanese freighter Shung Sun from Dec 4;

- the trucks were cleaned next to freshwater reservoirs (in one case on the shore

of a reservoir used for drinking and cooking), and in dozens of different spots around

Sihanoukville;

- and that a government investigating committee is looking to disprove rumors

- independently sourced in secret to the Post from an anonymous and senior official

at Sihanoukville port - that tons more waste was dumped in Cambodian seawaters while

the Shung Sun waited for three days in Sihanoukville's bay for permission to dock

at the port and unload. Environment Minister Mok Mareth said he was very concerned

about the rumor - though noting that is all it was - and said his investigators would

be looking into this, though they lacked the expertise to do so.

Other port officials strenuously deny that any of the waste had been dumped in the

bay.

Heng Mon, 66: "You see it still remains. And people believe it has already been taken away", as he points to poisonous dust near one of the town's reservoir.

The fall-out from the scandal has already been severe. The Post has been told that

Prime Minister Hun Sen may agree to respond to pressure within his own party to act

against a senior, though unnamed, CPP member who may have approved the deal.

Mareth confirmed to the Post that while neither he nor his ministry had any knowledge

of this shipment of Taiwanese waste, he had declined "many" similiar requests

in the past. Among those were plans to build a multi-million dollar industrial incinerator

in Sihanoukville - approved in principle in July by then co-PMs Hun Sen and Ung Huot,

but passed on to Mareth for his final decision who refused to approve the deal -

and another he blocked that had already been approved by his own State Secretary,

to burn tens of thousands of tons of old rubber tires.

"This isn't the first [dumping of toxins]," said one well-placed government

source. "It's just the first to be exposed".

Local media, especially, have seized the issue as a "hot" one; Koh Santepheap

- the Khmer-language newspaper that broke the Taiwanese waste story - ran another

front-page story Dec 24 about an industrial dump site in Kandal, from which locals

claim to have got sick. The paper's rival Reasmei Kampuchea ran a front-page story

of a waste site just a few kilometers from the Taiwanese one in Sihanoukville containing

film material dumped from Korea.

This week, Sihanoukville court summonsed the heads of shipping agencies Camsab and

Camcontrol for questioning. Chiefs of other agencies under pressure are said to be

from the local Customs, Immigration police and Economic police. Twenty officials

have already been suspended, and Hun Sen has made strong speeches about getting tough,

saying the scandal was bigger than the US bombing of Iraq.

The citizens of Sihanoukville certainly think so and their hysteria is being daily

fed by newspaper stories, radio talk-back and TV broadcasts.

A man collects water from one of Sihanoukville's reservoirs,

walking down the ladder to the road where the trucks were washed.

Tens of thousands of those people who can afford to have fled the town, provoking

dissent among those who haven't the money to do the same. Every sickness is now suspected

to be from "poisoning".

Hundreds of demonstrators began marching down Sihanoukville streets Dec 19, waving

placards and shouting, and things got rapidly out of control the following day. First

deputy governor Khim Bo's Landcruiser was burnt outside his home which, along with

Camsab's local office, was looted. One demonstrator died when falling furniture crushed

him and one police officer was wounded.

"I'm angry because they threw poison in my house," said demonstrator Te

Sitha, 38. "They kill Khmers in a peaceful way. We demonstrate because we don't

want to die."

Mareth said: "We can't blame the people who demonstrate. They worry about their

health... if it's a peaceful demonstration it's the right of the people...".

However, local authorities seemed bewildered by the community reaction. They responded

by arresting 10 local people, at last count, including two representative working

for the human rights group Licadho who have been charged with robbery and property

damage.

The Licadho arrests, human rights workers fear, may force local rights groups - already

feeling pressure of having, they perceive, less tanglible support from the United

Nations - to rethink the way that they work.

The Post's source from Sihan-oukville port said the reason why the ship carrying

the Taiwanese waste, the Shung Sun, took three days to dock at the port was because

the crew was bickering with port authorities over money.

This happened, ironically, as the ship's captain was falling "gravely ill",

later having to be nursed back to health at Sihanoukville hospital.

The source suggested the delay was a case of the lighter the cargo, the cheaper the

cost in bribes.

Local sources say the scandal only came to light because a hole could not be dug

deep enough in the rock at the dump site to completely bury the waste. Others say

the story was leaked only because certain port officials were angry at not being

paid the bribe money. The Cambodia Daily reported Dec 22 Funcinpec claims that a

$3m bribe had been paid to port chiefs.

TOXIC DUMP SITE IN SIHANOUKVILLE

Dr Mareth was faxed results of spectrometry analysis from Hong Kong Dec 22 proving

that samples of brown soil taken from the dump contained mercury, sodium, silicon,

chloride and calcium. "I don't want to hear this," Mareth said in response

to the dumping-at-sea claims, "I only want evidence". He confirmed that

his committee would be investigating the rumor. "[I want] compensation for the

victims [and] to go to [cleaning up] the environment."

He dismissed other rumors from high-placed sources within both his own ministry and

from the port that the Shung Sun was not the first time waste has been dumped in

Cambodia. Mareth says he has never approved any agreement to dump, burn or bury industrial

waste in Cambodia - a claim supported by independent sources.

As many as 80 to 90 trucks worked on the Shung Sun from Dec 4 - four days after it

docked - carting away waste which billowed from the vehicles in chalky clouds, say

locals who saw the operation that lasted between four and seven days and nights.

The trucks were uncovered on their journey to the dump about 10kms away.

Later each truck was cleaned. Most were swept clear with brooms, but many too were

hosed with water in dozens of different places over town.

Many of the trucks were cleaned next to a large water reservoir used by many houses

for drinking, cooking and washing-water. Other trucks fill their tanks with water

from this same lake to sell to homes not serviced by a large pump that feeds into

households closer by. Freshwater from Sihanoukville is also used to brew the popular

local beers Bayon and Ankor.

A man was swimming in the lake catching fish when the Post was there. Crumbling mounds

of toxic waste - reportedly said by Taiwan's Formosa Plastics where it originated

to be "legal" and "harmless" 20-year-old compressed ash from

an industrial incinerator - lay by the white concrete wall surrounding the lake.

DESTROYED CAMSAB OFFICES, DEC 21.

Local authorities have sent water away to Phnom Penh for testing from both this and

other Sihanoukville reservoirs.

Trucking company officials - who claim to have thought they were simply taking away

"old cement cakes" as the shipping manifests testify - confirm that the

trucks are neither kept nor cleaned in a single area. They agree that the vehicles

were cleaned all over the Sihanoukville township.

The largest single trucking firm, Reasmei Bopha, had 57 trucks unloading the Shung

Sun. But Bopha officials say other smaller firms were also used in the cartage contract

(at $35 a truck for one day) and that some of the trucks were owned by single owner-driver

operations.

But the dumping of waste is not simply a scandal for the immense volume in a single

dump of uncovered poisons in bags that ripped open from the time they left the Shung

Sun's hold. Nor for the toxic dusting of a township by uncovered trucks. Nor for

the concentrated pockets of contamination where the trucks were later cleaned.

The scandal goes deeper. Local people used the stuff for landfill, some thought it

was fertilizer, some used the plastic bags for their rice or in their homes. One

man used the waste blocks as hearth stones on which to light his cooking fire (he

was given some medicine at Sihanoukville hospital and told to return if his stomach

ache got worse).

The scandal intensifies because the poisoning of Sihanoukville was wrought in deceit

and corruption. Formosa Plastics appear to have deliberately mis-represented the

cargo and conspired with an unknown number of Cambodian officials to do the same.

The Cambodian importer, Sam Moeurn from the Muth Vuthy company, has been arrested

though Hun Sen, like most other people, believe the real blame lies further up the

chain of command.

However, that middle-tier of that command is responding for the moment with protestations

of ignorance, to thoughts that the deal was "odd" from the start, to finger-pointing,

to silence.

By ensuring local people were ignorant of the danger Formosa Plastics and State-paid

officials in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville could have caused a contamination that,

though its scale is not yet known, cannot be reversed.

 

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