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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Toxic waste pumped into Kampot water

Toxic waste pumped into Kampot water

P rey Kmum, Kampot - More than 300 villagers here have complained to local human

rights organizations about the deadly effects of a brackish runoff from

factories processing a medicinal vine known as voa romeat.

The

woody vine is collected in the forests by peasants who are paid 100-200 riel a

kilo. They bring the vine to half a dozen processing plants in the province,

where it is soaked for several days in a mixture of sulfuric and chloridic acid

and them turned into a saffron-colored powder.

Foul-smelling waste water

from the factories is then channeled into run-off ponds or dumped directly into

surrounding rice paddies or the Kampot river.

At one site in Prey Kmum

commune north of Kampot, the soil has turned black in rice paddies next to the

run-off ponds, which are located only a couple of hundred meters from the

village drinking water supply.

"My house is only 500 meters from the

place," said one resident of Wat Po village near the Prey Kmum plant. "On a hot

day when there's no wind, it really smells bad. We get headaches and feel dizzy

all the time and sometimes vomit. Our chickens. pigs and ducks have all

died."

A human rights investigator said: "I have seen cows with their

noses burned off and their tongues hanging out, near where they process voa

romeat. The animals are all dying. Who knows what the health effects are on

people?"

On June 16, citing environmental and health hazards, the Kampot

Ministry of Agriculture issued a notice for all voa romeat factories in Kampot

to cease operations. But personnel at two factories interviewed by the Post say

that they had already stopped operations several weeks before the government

order because the value of processed voa romeat had dropped from $12 to $4 and

also because the onset of the rainy season made it difficult to dry the

powder.

"If the price goes back up, I'll start again during the dry

season - in another place," said Uy Sabuth, manager of the Prey Kmum voa romeat

factory.

No-one interviewed by the Post was exactly sure what the

processed vine is used for, although in its natural form Cambodians use it to

treat malaria or as a tonic. According to Uy Sabuth, the acid-processed vine is

sold to Vietnamese middle-men, who export it to Singapore, China and Taiwan,

possibly for medicinal purposes. At the Cambodian factories, the Vietnamese

traders provide on-site technical experts who mix and administer the acid

solution.

The acid solution regularly corrodes through the metal and

concrete soaking tanks. Uy Sabuth has to build new tanks every three

months.

The waste water in the run-off ponds are separated from the

surrounding rice paddies only by earthen dikes. "We use only a little acid. When

the rain comes and mixes with the water it will be diluted."

He said a

National Assembly representative came to Prey Kmum several months ago after many

people complained about the smell and other health effects. "The people are

afraid (of the vine) but even my employees who process voa romeat are not

affected," he said. "So how can people say it will hurt them?"

Despite

the closure order, people here say the run-off ponds still pose a health

hazard.

"No-one is doing anything about the ponds of poisoned water that

are still sitting there," said one human rights worker. "The stuff eats through

steel or brick in only a couple of months so of course it's spreading from the

run-off ponds into the surrounding area. It will get rally bad in the rainy

season because the polluted water will seep in the rice fields and into the

water table."

Uy Sabuth said that until recently voa romeat was

being processed at seven other Kampot locations, including near the tourist

waterfall site at Tuk Chou. In addition, he said, the vine is processed in Koh

Kong, Kompong Cham, Kompong Speu, Stung Treng and Ratanakiri.

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