by Johanna Son
(IPS) MANILA --
of Taiwanese toxic waste in Cambodia is the latest confirmation that the waste trade flows toward countries with lax rules and ill-equipped bureaucracies.
And even as negotiations continue between the Phnom Penh government and Taiwan on the return of the 2,779 tons of industrial waste, the toxic trash sits in a Cambodian village two months after its delivery there.
The toxic waste, found to have very high mercury content, arrived aboard a Taiwanese freighter on Nov. 28 and was brought to a village near Sihanoukville in southeastern Cambodia, which juts out into the Gulf of Thailand.
The Khmer-language newspaper Koh Santephcap broke the story about the toxic waste dump and the people who fell ill after breaking open the bags and using them to store rice and other items. Thinking the contents construction waste, some took them home and used them as filling material.
At least three deaths were reported, apart from a Cambodian man who died days after helping unload the freighter on Dec. 4.
Panic then ensued, and villagers left their homes in fear of being poisoned. "Paradise poisoned," the headline of the English-language daily announced, since Sihanoukville is known for its beaches and seafood.
environment activists say Cambodia "is the most vulnerable country in the South-east Asian region," as Manila-based Asia toxics campaigner Von Hernandez put it.
"It's an open target because of all the coastal countries, it has no ban on hazardous waste imports and is not a party to the Basel convention," he said in an interview.
The Basel Convention on the Control of the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal makes the shipment, export and trade in toxic wastes illegal, and sets out procedures for redress if dumping should occur.
Cambodia appeared to be an easy target because it is one of just three coastal Asian countries -- the others being Taiwan and North Korea -- that have not joined the Basel convention.
Apart from being a poor country, Cambodia was an option also because most East Asian countries are already part of that convention. In recent years, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, China and Vietnam have barred the entry of toxic waste.
So, the waste trade "followed the path of least resistance, where the rules or lax and there are no existing rules," Hernandez added.
Reports by local media say the waste shipment from Taiwan's Formosa Plastics, believed to include substances arising from the old methods of plastic production, arrived in Cambodia with the approval of government officials.
Formosa Plastics has given little more information, but has reported to have said the waste, reported to have been encased in cement in Taiwan for 20 years but moved out due to domestic opposition, was safe enough to be used for landfill.
Public anger was such that demonstrators rushed to the offices of the shipping agency Camsab in December and looted it. "The scandal intensifies because the poisoning of Sihanoukville was wrought in deceit and corruption," said the Phnom Penh Post.
"Formosa Plastics appears to have deliberately misrepresented the cargo and conspired with an unknown number of Cambodian officials to do the same," it added.
Scores of officials have since been suspended and the Cambodian importer, Sam Moeurn from the Muth Vuthy company, arrested. The Cambodian press says that a powerful figure is behind the toxic importation, and that a $3 million bribe had facilitated the transaction.
Formosa Plastics, which Hernandez says is the largest PVC producer, has been fined. It has been asked by Taiwan's environment agency to take responsibility for the waste.
The waste was sealed by Cambodian officials in protective clothing in late December and is now awaiting transhipment.
Greenpeace activists, who in recent weeks have met with Cambodian officials in Phnom Penh, suggest that a deadline of 90 days from the waste's arrival in November be set for the return of the toxic trash to Taiwan. A negotiating committee has just been formed to discuss the matter.
The Cambodian government has pledged to sign on to the Basel convention and pass explicit legislation barring importation of waste, going beyond the organic law in place at present.
Meantime, there have been no common findings yet on the exact nature of the waste and its health risks. Analysis of the waste has been made by the Thai military, the Hong Kong environmental protection department, and the National Institute for Minamata Disease in Japan.
While the reports all find extremely high level of mercury, the conclusions differ.
The Minamata institute, commissioned by the World Health Organization, said that despite high mercury levels in the waste, there was no sign of leakage into the environment. "It is unlikely that they (people who fell ill) suffer from mercury poisoning," the report concluded.
Greenpeace and the Basel Action Network said it was "premature" and "irresponsible" to brush off the health risks this early, without comprehensive chemical analysis and health studied.
Activists meantime warn that as Asian countries close their shores to waste imports, there is added danger that toxic waste-producing countries might resort to dumping into the sea.
But for Sihanoukville's residents, the costs of the deception they suffered will remain for a long time.
"By ensuring that local people were ignorant of the danger, Formosa Plastics and State-paid officials have caused a contamination that, though its scale, is not yet known, cannot be reversed," said the Phnom Penh Post recently.
February 22, 1999 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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