THE 3,000 tonnes of mercury laden toxic waste and 2000 tonnes of land on which it
was dumped will be gone from Cambodia by Khmer new year in mid-April, according to
the head of the Government team negotiating the clean up.
HE Om Yen Tieng said this week that Formosa Plastics, which was responsible for the
waste, had more than doubled the number of workers originally scheduled to take part
in the clean up from 46 to 136.
He said it meant the waste would be out of the country before the April 30 deadline.
He said that the clean up would be undertaken by Formosa Plastics and would be supervised
by the United States company CMD which has handled similar cases for the US Government.
He said CMD will act as an independent third party to ensure the waste was properly
contained and transported.
Meanwhile in a bizarre twist to the scandal, Yen Tieng said a representative from
North Korea approached him and offered to ship the waste there saying "he had
the best price."
Yen Tieng said that the final destination of the waste was Formosa Plastic's problem,
not the Cambodian Government's, so he had referred the North Korean onto the company.
He said that the waste would have to be packaged and transported to the satisfaction
of CMD and he did not know whether the North Koreans could fulfill those criteria.
But he added that he understood Formosa were discussing the plan with the North Koreans
saying the company "had the right to find the best quality and price."
A technical source said that there were indications that the waste would be shipped
to the United States.
The US, like North Korea and Cambodia is not a signatory to the Basel convention
which controls the international trade in such waste.
Basel Action Network spokesman Jim Pucket said that meant the convention could not
be invoked to prevent its movement.
However, he said that even if the legal hurdles aren't there it is unlikely that
the environmental community would welcome such a import.
"The United States has a ban on land filling mercury waste, but inexplicably
allows it to be incinerated," he said.
"This is a horrific practice that is being opposed by groups here.
"Mercury does not burn but the incineration process merely disseminates it into
the atmosphere and rarely is there any attempt to recover it with filters."
Meanwhile for those who might have been poisoned by the waste the Government's agreement
with Formosa has little in it for them.
There are no provisions for the payment of compensation to victims or the country
and the clause relating to the provision of medical treatment has also been criticized.
Michele Brandt, a legal consultant to Legal aid of Cambodia said that Formosa Plastics
insistence that they be in charge of medical treatment was insulting.
She said it was asking people to ask for medical treatment from the people who poisoned
Om Yien Tieng defended the absence of a compensation provision in the agreement saying
that the priority for the Government has been to get the waste out of Cambodia before
the rains washed it into water system.
"We are near the rainy season and we don't know the composition of the waste."
"We need to solve the first problems first."
He said payments to victims have not been ruled out but there were a number of practical
problems to be overcome before compensation could be considered.
"First you must have evidence - how many [people were affected], who, where,"
Yien Tieng said that the World Health Organization had not found anyone they could
say was suffering from mercury poisoning so it became a question of who should get
He said that if they tried to push for compensation for the people who were injured
or suffered a loss in the panic and exodus from Sihanoukville there would a dispute
over what caused it.
He said the original reports were that the waste was radioactive. Under that scenario
Formosa could argue incorrect reporting caused the panic not their toxic waste.
He said such debates could only delay the signing of the agreement and the longer
it was unsigned the longer the waste remained in Cambodia.
The extent of the health problems caused by the waste dumping might not be fully
known for a number of years.
An expert on the Minamata poisoning in Japan Dr M Harada said that in the Japanese
case only 2000 out of 12,000 victims were correctly diagnosed and received medical
He also said that diagnosis was difficult and relied on taking samples from victims
periodically over a number of years and testing them.
Om Yien Tieng said that they had obtained the equipment necessary to conduct tests
for mercury and other heavy metals both in the environment and people.
He said in association with the World Health Organization they would monitor the
site and those living near it to see if they had been affected.
And if they had they would then take the case up with Formosa Plastics and seek compensation.
"Even if in ten years time a woman has a baby affected by mercury we will forward
the dossier to Formosa," he said.
The likelihood of ever obtaining a pay out from Formosa under these circumstances
is doubted by Jim Puckett.
He was reported in an Environmental News Service report as dismissing the chances
of victims ever getting money from the company
"We fear that once the wastes are put back on a ship, and sail away, Formosa
Plastics will conveniently disappear as well, and might refuse to return to the bargaining
table to compensate Cambodians for their criminal act." he said.
His comments were echoed by Greenpeace International spokesperson Von Hernandez who
said in the same report: "it is our view that unless Formosa Plastics is held
liable for the damage and injury caused by this despicable act, they will be getting
away with murder."