Prey Nop district, Preah Sihanouk province – As the deadline for the return of 83 containers filled with unwanted plastic rubbish approaches, residents of Sihanoukville are expressing concern as they remember the 1998 toxic waste incident.
In 1998, 3,000 tonnes of mercury-laced waste was shipped by Taiwanese company Formosa Plastics Corporation and dumped outside of the city. Many of the trucks carrying sacks of the waste were reportedly cleaned beside a large reservoir which supplied drinking water. Villagers used the waste for landfill and salvaged the sacks.
Stories of secret dumps at other locations caused a local community to hold demonstrations. A shipping agency office was set on fire and one person died.
Four more people reportedly died in traffic crashes as nearly 50,000 Sihanoukville residents fled the city. Environmentalists at the time raised concern that Asia was becoming a dumping ground for toxic waste. A scavenger reportedly died after rummaging through the waste, but officials seeking compensation from Formosa at the time said there was no evidence.
The 1998 ordeal was recalled as the General Department of Customs and Excise discovered the 83 containers in July at the Sihanoukville Autonomous Port. The authorities said the containers were filled with 1,600 tonnes of plastic waste.
It has since ordered Chungyuen Plastic Manufacturer to return the containers back to the United States and Canada by August 24 and told the company and its chairman Suon Lok to pay a $250,000 fine.
GDCE director-general Kun Nhim that the company was registered with the Commerce Ministry in 2018 and that its head office is located within the Zhejiang Special Economic Zone.
However, when a reporter went to the address provided for the company by the GDCE, no office for the company could be found and workers nearby said they did not know Mr Lok.
Representatives of Chungyuen could not be reached for comment.
A painful reminder
Khuon Keo, a 64-year-old farmer from Chamnot Ream, said he was angry when he heard the authorities discovered the 83 containers. Mr Keo was upset because he was one of the people who fell ill during the 1998 incident.
He said he came into contact with toxic waste as he was doing his daily work routine. Mr Keo said he was surprised when he saw trucks unloading sacks filled with what looked like cement near his home in Chamnot Ream village.
“At first, I did not know it was toxic waste,” he said. “I used a sickle to cut open the sack. I wanted to make a tent and rice sack for my wife.”
“I took about 10 sacks home. At first, I wasn’t sick, but days later I became ill,” Mr Keo added, noting that he only found out the sacks contained toxic material after the authorities informed him a couple of weeks later.
“My wife and I had to send our children to a relative’s home in Kampot province,” he said. “My family was scared after the authorities told us the sacks contained toxic materials.”
Regarding the 83 containers, Mr Keo said the government made the correct decision by ordering Chungyuen to return the containers to their original sources.
“I support the government’s order,” he said. “We are against waste imports.”
Van Kan, a 74-year-old former village chief, said hundreds of people collected the plastic sacks left by Formosa in 1998.
Mr Kan said after the collectors found out the sacks contained toxic materials, residents panicked and evacuated Chamnot Ream.
“Police came to our village, checked each home and collected the sacks,” he said. “It was a nightmare for our village.”
Keo En, Mr Kan’s 54-year-old wife, said she fell ill after sewing one of the bags she had collected from the dump site.
“I felt dizzy – I had headaches and I vomited – and I became weak,” Ms En said. “I fell ill after spending days with those sacks.”
She said most of the elderly in the village remember the panic that led to the evacuation of the village.
Keo Mom, 51, said she was poisoned after her husband brought one of the sacks home.
Ms Mom blames corrupt officials for allowing toxic waste to be dumped nearby her village 21 years ago.
“At the time, my husband and other villagers collected those sacks in order to make tents,” she said. “My eyes began to hurt and I started to feel dizzy after I had sewn three or four tents. Days later I noticed that I was poisoned.”
“I felt dizzy and started vomiting. I was so weak, I had to have 10 IV drips. I almost died,” Ms Mom said, noting that her daughter, who was four-years-old at the time, showed similar symptoms.
“I am sure that my health problem was caused by the chemicals in those sacks because before coming in contact I was very healthy,” she added. “It wasn’t only me, my neighbours had the same serious symptoms.”
When asked about the 83 containers, Ms Mom said no waste, toxic or otherwise, should ever be imported into the Kingdom.
The government’s response
Last week, Provincial Hall spokesman Kheang Phearom said enough rubbish is already being produced in the country and the government does not want Cambodia to be a dumping ground for foreign countries.
“The head of the Royal Government has already said Cambodia is not a dumpsite for old waste,” Mr Phearom said. “Foreigners want their countries clean, we too want our country clean. There is no reason to accept waste.”
“We already have local waste,” he added. “In Sihanoukville, we produce 600 to 700 tonnes of waste per day.”
Mr Phearom said that the incident in 1998 stemmed from a lack of technology to scan containers brought in from overseas.
“We should understand that at the time we did not have the technology. We didn’t have modern scanners,” he said, adding that the government is aiming to prevent the import of waste in the future.
“It’s a problem of the past, we consider it as an experience and we will avoid it from happening in the future,” Mr Phearom said. “Not just toxic waste, we don’t even want plastic waste. Our laws ban the import of waste.”
Environment Ministry spokesman Neth Pheaktra yesterday said there’s one main difference between the 1998 case and the case of the 83 containers: The 1,600 tonnes of waste is not toxic.
“The illegal waste import of 1998 was dangerous and the government forced the company to take it back immediately,” Mr Pheaktra said. “For the latest case, it was a case of fraudulent imports because it was listed as recycled waste.”
He noted that ministry and GDCE officials ran tests on the plastic waste and did not find any toxic materials.
When asked about the incident in 1998, Mr Pheaktra said the incident cannot be repeated.
“It’s an experience that must be used to strengthen law enforcement and for Cambodia to be more cautious in preventing the import of rubbish and banned goods,” he said. “Cambodia is not a dumpsite for old waste and Cambodia has always opposed the import of plastic waste and used diesel.”
Mr Pheaktra noted that the governments of the US and Canada are cooperating with Cambodian officials.
He said that all 83 containers must be out of Cambodia by August 24. However, he did not reveal how many have been sent back so far.
“They must send the 83 containers back to the original sources,” Mr Pheaktra said.