Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Sihanoukville toxic dumping: one year on

Sihanoukville toxic dumping: one year on

Sihanoukville toxic dumping: one year on

Sickened port worker Taing Sy Lay now spends most of her salary

on medicine since the dumping

On November 30, 1998, the Taiwanese freighter Chang Sun docked in Sihanoukville Port,

its hold packed with thousands of tons of highly toxic waste.

In the first of a two part series, Chea Sotheacheath and Phelim Kyne

return to Sihanoukville and find that fear, anger and questions about who was responsible

for the waste dumping and its health effects remain unresolved.

Fifteen kilometers outside of Sihanoukville on National Route 4, the landscape

of flat farmland and scrub forest is broken by a cluster of shipping containers rusting

in a field of grazing cows. The 144 containers, their doors ajar in the wind or removed

completely by enterprising scrap metal merchants, stand as a memorial to what environmentalists

have described as "the worst act of toxic waste dumping in recent times".

It was this patch of open ground that on Dec 4, 1998 became the dump site for 2,900

tons of highly toxic waste produced in a Formosa Plastics Corporation (FPC) polyvinyl

chloride factory in Taiwan in the eighties.

And although accompanying FPC documentation innocuously referred to the waste as

"cement cake", later testing discovered concentrations of mercury more

than 20,000 times above safety limits as well as dangerous levels of dioxin and polychlorinated

biphenyls (PCBs).

The cargo containers were deployed on Dec 23, 1998 as a desperate stop-gap measure

to contain the huge piles of dusty, poisoned rubble in an attempt to stem the mounting

tide of hysteria as panicking residents fled the city en masse as reports of death

and illness spread across the city.

One year later, the containers, their former contents condemning them to "toxic

waste" status under US EPA regulations, remain undisturbed as official memory

of the events of last December quickly fade.

"Idon't remember anything

about that matter ... it was a year ago," Special Advisor to Prime Minister

Hun Sen, Om Yen Tieng told the Post in response to questions about his role in negotiations

with Formosa Plastics that resulted in the waste being removed from Cambodia on March

30, 1999. "Talking about that issue is like digging up a dead body that's already

been buried."

According to Human Rights Watch, at least seven Sihanoukville residents are known

to have died from events linked to the dumping.

Two men died with symptoms of acute mercury poisoning, four were killed in car accidents

as residents fled the city while another man was killed from injuries incurred when

angry residents mobbed the Sihanoukville headquarters of Kamsab, one of several government

agencies blamed for the waste's importation.

The same kind of amnesia suffered by Om Yen Tieng apparently also affects the Phnom

Penh headquarters of the World Health Organization (WHO).

"I hadn't heard about any deaths. ... I know that people got sick but this is

the first time I've heard about deaths," explained Bill Pigott, WHO Country

Representative since May 1999. "When I came I was briefed extensively by [former

WHO Country Representative] George Petersen and he didn't mention there were deaths."

An independent American toxicologist who has done consulting work for Legal Aid of

Cambodia (LAC) regarding the dumping is horrified at blasé official attitudes

toward the events in Sihanoukville last year.

"It appears that everyone in a position of authority wants to downplay the potential

seriousness of the problem," the toxicologist, who requested anonymity, told

the Post by email. "It appears WHO is more concerned about alarming people than

about seeing to an adequate evaluation of potential harm to their health."

Sok Poeu is a good first-hand

source regarding the lethality of the Chang Sun's cargo. The 28 year-old mother of

three is the widow of Pich Sovann, a port worker who died in agony on Dec. 16 after

spending two days inhaling clouds of mercury-laden dust while sweeping out the hold

of the ship.

Today, cattle can be seen grazing freely on the former dump site

"My children have lost their future," Poeu said.

"I've had to send one of my children to live in Siem Reap because I can't afford

to support three children on my own."

Sovann's death was followed three days later by the death of a twenty-three year

old male resident of Koki village, adjacent the dump site, who died after having

slept for several days on plastic sheeting that he had scavenged there.

Both men were cremated before Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) or WHO

officials could perform autopsies, leading both organizations to classify their causes

of death as "inconclusive".

Official dismissal of the role of the waste in the deaths of the two men angers Mak

Sithirith, Environment Network Coordinator for the NGO Forum on Cambodia.

"The symptoms of the people who died showed strong signs of mercury poisoning

- exhaustion, dehydration, inability to urinate, lack of red blood cells," Sithirith

said. "The MSF and WHO reports don't tell the whole story ... how can they say

that the effects weren't so serious?"

Sithirith's sentiments are shared by Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network, which

monitors the global movements of hazardous waste.

Puckett, who visited the Sihanoukville dump site in January and has monitored developments

closely over the past year, is convinced that the two men died from acute mercury

poisoning from exposure to the waste.

"The waste is heavily contaminated with mercury ... two persons died from similar

symptoms following close association with the waste," said Puckett.

"A mercury specialist has told me that in his opinion, it is likely that the

cause of deaths was inhalation of mercury vapors."


Taing Sy Lay, a Sihanoukville

Port worker who was hospitalized for five days last December after falling ill during

the unloading of the waste, says much of her salary is now spent on medicine she

takes for constant fatigue and dizziness.

"In the hospital the doctor told me my blood showed mercury [contamination],

but that it would go away" said Lay.

"I've become so weak that I miss five or six days of work each month. ... A

lot of my coworkers feel the same way."

According to a February, 1999 MSF study of 1,300 people exposed to the waste, Lay

and her co-workers should not be feeling the way they do. MSF concluded that 48%

of port workers and 35% of residents of Bettrang Commune adjacent the dump site had

illnesses: "consistent with short term exposure to toxins and also consistent

with the 60 day half-life of mercury in the body"

However, MSF concluded that it had found no evidence that long-term health effects

could be expected by those exposed to the waste.

The MSF conclusions don't go down very well in Bettrang Commune, whose residents

swarmed over the waste within hours of the dumping, oblivious to the danger. Residents

prized the triple-lined plastic bags that held the waste and in some cases pieces

of the waste itself.

"People thought that the waste was a kind of fertilizer, and brought it home

for their crops," said Bettrang Commune official Long Nau. "People used

the bags to store rice, or as bed sheets and window screens."

Bettrang was certainly no exemplar of good public health even before toxic waste

complicated the lives of the people here. Gastroenteritis and malaria are rife, and

raw running sores on the legs of naked children in this village testify to the community's

poor sanitation.

But according to residents and commune officials, health conditions of many residents

have taken a definitive turn for the worse since last December. They blame their

exposure to the waste and a water supply possibly tainted by runoff from the dumpsite

on the hill above them.

"Things have really changed since last year," Nau said. "People have

a lot of new health problems [like] strange respiratory problems since touching the


Chhim Poeu, a teacher in Bettrang, says that many local people connect the dump site

with numerous deaths over the past year. "I can count 14 strong, healthy people

who've died in the past year, people who shouldn't have died," Poeu said.

Bettrang Commune official Long Nau says there have been many health problems in the area since the dumping.

Mysterious deaths and illnesses are apparently not restricted to Bettrang's human

residents. "Cows and buffaloes that eat the grass up there get sick and develop

strange shiny bumps on their bodies," Poeu added. "Sometimes we find that

a cow has just died up there for no apparent reason."

Not to worry, says Heng Narith, Director of the Department of Pollution Control at

the Ministry of the Environment, who brandishes results of surface and ground water

testing done by the WHO in recent months at eight locations in and around the former

dump site.

The tests results are analyzed at Japan's National Minimata Institute and are scheduled

to continue for a year.

"The latest results from samples taken in Oct, 1999 indicate all values [of

mercury contamination] are still well below safe drinking water guidelines,"

Narith explained.

"We don't want to say we don't believe them [the villagers], but we can't do

anything without realistic information from physicians."

LAC's toxicologist advisor questions the accuracy and utility of the WHO water testing.

"The waste was never, in my opinion, tested adequately to identify both the

variety of toxic substances or the maximum amounts of these substances," he

explained. "Without this pre-existing knowledge, one cannot begin to model the

ground water contamination ... are ground water experts participating in this or

is the local WHO group just muddling through?"

Puckett was also highly critical of the unrestricted access to the former dumping


Although 4,000 tons of topsoil from the site were removed as part of the area's clean-up

by the hazardous waste landfill company Safety-Kleen Services Inc., Puckett fears

that Bettrang residents who regularly comb the former site for beetles and lizards

which they eat or sell in the Sihanoukville market run the risk of further toxic


"Stating that planting plants over the site to supposedly prevent access and

exposure, even if somebody bothers to do it, is a non-solution," Puckett said

of the proposals by the American environmental engineering firm CDM International,

which supervised the decontamination of the dump site. "The area should be cordoned

off and placed under guard, the ground water and soil continually tested until levels

reach background level."

According to Pigott, concern about the safety of the former dump site is unnecessary.

In a written statement to the Post Pigott stated that "the waste removal operations...were

very effective in removing nearly all of the 2,800 metric tons of concentrated waste

material plus a great deal of soil and other material that had come into contact

with the waste."

WHO's declaration of the area as "very clean" is characterized by LAC's

consultant toxicologist as: "stupid science and even more stupid health policy".

"First, without knowing how deep into the soil the mercury and its strong alkali

medium penetrated, the site is probably not very clean at all," the toxicologist

commented. "Animals of various species living on the site that get contaminated

by eating worms, larvae and other fauna living in this greatly contaminated soil

will provide dietary exposure at the next step up the food chain - to those eating

the lizards."

Strangely, although both Narith and Pigott indicated that WHO research in the former

dump site was confined to water testing, Bettrang villagers told the Post that "foreign

doctors" had collected hair and breast milk samples from residents in early


"They didn't tell us what organization they were from," said one woman

who had been asked to provide the unidentified medical personnel with a sample of

her breast milk.

Conflicting and inconclusive medical evidence of possible long term health damage

to Sihanoukville residents exposed to the waste has to date hampered attempts by

alleged victims to seek legal redress for their ills.

George Cooper, a legal consultant with LAC, says plans are afoot to bring researchers

from an unnamed American university to Sihanoukville to perform sophisticated testing

for evidence of health conditions resulting from exposure to the waste.

"There's real serious culpability somewhere [for the toxic waste's importation],"

Cooper said of LAC's continuing interest in the case, "but exactly where we

don't yet know."

If the proposed testing does indicate the existence of long term illness from waste

exposure, Cooper says LAC has already explored the possibility of representing affected

Sihanoukville residents in a civil compensation claim in a Taiwan court against the

waste's producer, Formosa Plastics Company.

"We've checked with Taiwan to see if based on [proof of illness due to exposure],

could we sue, and the answer is yes," Cooper told the Post. "But we still

don't know if there's a case ... it depends on how far down the causation chain [in

terms of death and damage caused by the dumping] Taiwan law allows us to go."

Here in Cambodia, the legal fallout over the waste's importation effectively ended

on June 17, 1999, when two Taiwanese representatives of the Jade Fortune import company,

their Cambodian interpreter and Sam Moeun of Cambodia's Muth Vuthy Import Export

Company were convicted of "conspiring to damage the environment."

The two Taiwanese, Chang Fu Kung and Kao Chia Song, were sentenced in absentia to

five years imprisonment as was their interpreter Phann Phoeung. Moeun was sentenced

to seven months imprisonment.

Although there have been rumors of multi-million dollar bribes to facilitate the

waste's importation no officials have been successfully prosecuted.

"People in Sihanoukville are so unhappy about this ... they know this was a

real crime but no one has come to investigate who perpetrated that crime"said

Kek Galabru, director of the human rights group Licadho.

Soldiers seal up the waste last December

"People still tell our staff in Sihanoukville that there can't be justice if

[the waste dumping] goes unpunished."

Galabru fears that the most poignant lessons of the Sihanoukville toxic dumping have

been to underline the rot within the country rather than any future threats from


"Cambodians aren't angry at Taiwan for this, they're angry at their own government,"

she said. "[The dumping] showed there's a double standard of law for rich and

poor in this country, and in the case of Sihanoukville it was the poor that have

again been made to suffer."



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