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On or about November 30, 1998,1 the cargo ship Chang Shun slipped into Cambodia's southern port of Sihanoukville, an economic and tourism hub generating much-needed income for this poor and war-scarred nation. The ship's cargo was identified as 2,799 metric tons of Acement cake. 2 It was composed of chunks of solid material packed into huge, thick plastic bags, each weighing more than one ton. After three or four days of negotiation, Cambodian officials gave permission for the ship's unloading. Port laborers poured on board to hook the bags to cranes. Some of the bags fell free, smashing open as they hit the ground; dust scattered everywhere. The port workers, told that they were unloading debris from destroyed buildings, did not wear safety clothing; most wore shorts and t-shirts.3 After unloading, the waste debris was raked up from the ship's holds. Some of the plastic bags, valuable items in a poor country like Cambodia, were ripped off their contents and stolen from the port.4

From December 4 to 6, day and night, the cargo was loaded onto trucks and taken to its destination. It was dumped on the outskirts of Sihanoukville, about fifteen kilometers from the port, on a plot of land just behind a small military base. Local villagers living close to the dumpsite thought this was a boon. Soon, the rush was on to scavenge the plastic sheets C ideal for crafting homemade tents, fences, and sleeping mats C and even the Acement rubble itself. Some people came from further afield: 300 kilograms of the Acement was later found across town near a beach, and another load of it made its way to neighboring Kampot province, according to police and environment officials.

Soon, the windfall turned sour. People began to fall sick. Pich Sovann, a port worker who had unloaded and cleaned the ship, got intense stomach pains, vomited and had breathing problems.5 Hospitalized on December 16, he died the same day. Several other port workers were hospitalized over the next three days. Meanwhile, villagers who lived near the dumpsite started to complain of various symptoms including diarrhea, fever, vomiting, and headaches.

Cambodia, a country emerging from decades of war, genocide and poverty, faced another challenge: toxic waste. It was later revealed that the ship Chang Shun had been carrying industrial waste laced with mercury and possibly other toxins.

How It Got There: The Taiwan Side

The waste came from the largest manufacturer of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) in the world, Formosa Plastics Group of Taiwan, whose major shareholder is a Taiwanese family reputedly among the top ten wealthiest families in Asia.6 The largest private industrial conglomerate in Taiwan, Formosa Plastics Group had total assets of U.S.$20 billion and operating revenue of U.S.$10 billion from its companies in 1997.7 Its main subsidiaries are the Formosa Plastics Corporation and the Nan Ya Plastics Corporation in Taiwan, as well as Formosa Plastics Corporation of the United States. The Formosa Plastics Group subsidiary which actually produced the waste was the Formosa Plastics Corporation of Taiwan.

The waste reportedly came from a Formosa factory in Jenwu township in Taiwan's industrial southern tip of Kaohsiung County. It was apparently produced between 1975 and 1983 as a byproduct of a process that uses mercury to produce sodium hydroxide (caustic soda),8 a precursor to manufacturing PVC and other products. This was not known at time of arrival in Cambodia. C.T. Lee, the president of Formosa Plastics Corporation, has since said that the company stopped using this process in 1989 but was left with at least 14,000 tons of mercury-contaminated sludge to dispose of.9 Some of this liquid sludge was later solidified by mixing it with cement and other substances. This was intended to stabilize the waste as the mercury binds with the cement. According to C.T. Lee, an initial plan to bury the waste in a landfill not far from the Jenwu factory was dropped because of public protests. The waste remained in storage at the Jenwu plant for years, as the company looked for somewhere else to dispose of it.10

Formosa's initial response to the revelations of the Cambodia shipment was to deny that the waste was hazardous and to insist that its export from Taiwan was legal. It has since been proven wrong on both counts. It has also been revealed that initially Formosa wanted to send liquid sludge, not the solidified material, to Cambodia.

According to Taiwan's Environmental Protection Administration (EPA), in October 1998 Formosa applied for permission to ship more than 5,000 tons of liquid sludge containing mercury to Cambodia. Permission was refused because of inadequate description of the sludge contents, lack of documentation from Cambodia authorizing the import, and lack of certification that Cambodia was capable of handling such waste. On November 19, Formosa reapplied, this time to ship a batch of stabilized, solidified sludge to Cambodia. Within a day or two, the waste was shipped B illegally, because environmental authorities had not yet ruled on the second application B from Taiwan.11 The shipment was further unlawful because the Formosa contractor who shipped the waste, the Taiwanese firm Ching Fu Enterprise, which uses the English name Jade Fortune International Ltd., is not EPA-certified to handle hazardous material.12

According to a purported contract between Formosa and Ching Fu (Jade Fortune), the latter had been hired to dispose of 2,900 tons (although the amount listed on shipping documents was 2,799 tons) of material described as normal industrial waste. Ching Fu was supposed to break the solid waste into pieces and bury it. For this, it was to be paid the equivalent of about U.S.$100 per ton.13

Kaohsiung County's Department of Environmental Protection learned of the unauthorized shipment to Cambodia on December 2 and launched an investigation of Formosa for breaches of Taiwan's Waste Disposal Act.14 The multibillion-dollar conglomerate was fined twelve times for breaches of the law in this case, fines that totaled about U.S.$48,000. Formosa's contractor, Ching Fu (Jade Fortune), was fined about U.S.$5,000, according to the department.15 A Taiwanese environmental group, the Green Formosa Front, as of early April 1999 was suing Formosa, alleging the company filed false documentation for the export.16

Formosa, defending its actions to Taiwan environmental authorities, said that the material had been certified as non-toxic by an EPA-approved private inspection agency in 1993. However, subsequent EPA testing on samples of the waste showed that its mercury levels were high enough for it to be defined as hazardous waste under Taiwan regulations.17

How It Got There: The Cambodian Side

How Cambodia was chosen as the waste destination is uncertain. What is known is that the contractor, Ching Fu, in turn subcontracted the operation to a Cambodian firm, Muth Vuthy Import and Export Co. Ltd.18 Formosa has blamed both contractors for not disposing of the waste in a proper manner. 19 After the scandal broke, Muth Vuthy's president, Sam Moeun, was arrested; he remained in prison as of early April. According to court documents, Sam Moeun said under questioning that two Taiwanese men who traveled to Cambodia before the shipment arrived had deceived him, describing the waste as stone.20

It is also, to date, unclear how the eventual dumpsite in Sihanoukville was chosen. The land was reportedly owned by Ros Teat, a military commander in charge of the small army base at the site. Questioned later by the Sihanoukville court, Ros Teat maintained that he sold the land in late 1998 to a Chinese (presumably Taiwanese) businessman and that he had not known what the land would be used for.21

When the shipment arrived at Sihanoukville port on November 30, 1998, alarm bells went off for officials from the Customs department and Camcontrol, the government agency responsible for inspecting imports to Cambodia. Prior import approval had not been obtained, so the ship was not immediately allowed to unload. According to court documents, Sam Moeun visited senior Customs and Camcontrol officials in Phnom Penh to facilitate importation authorization. On December 3, the Customs department reportedly sent a sample of the cargo to the Ministry of Industry, which, after inspection, allegedly declared that the material could be turned into cement or ceramics.22 The Customs pricing department then raised the import tax on the shipment from U.S.$10 to $24 per ton, a total increase from about $28,000 to $67,000, allegedly on the orders of national Customs Director In Saroeun.23 On December 4, In Saroeun gave his authorization for the import to be allowed.24 Citing the Ministry of Industry's inspection, he has since denied that he knew the cargo was hazardous waste.

It is very possible that other, more senior officials were involved in the waste deal. National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh has reportedly said that Prime Minister Hun Sen told him that as much as U.S.$3 million in bribes may have been paid to government officials.25 That figure has been widely repeated. Formosa has energetically denied paying any bribes. Nevertheless, it is generally accepted, as Prime Minister Hun Sen said days after the scandal broke, that if there had not been high-level involvement, [the shipment] could not have been managed. 26

Subsequently, the government announced that more than thirty Customs, Camcontrol and other officials, including In Saroeun, were suspended, and later increased this number to one hundred. On a local level, the first deputy governor of Sihanoukville, Khim Bo, widely considered to hold the most power in the city, has publicly denied any bribe-taking.27 Meanwhile, there have been persistent rumors that the importation deal was approved at a high government level. Privately, some government and opposition political figures have pointed the finger at two senior officials, one a cabinet minister and the other the head of a powerful government bureau. The government reacted angrily to a report that senior officials approved the importation and that the proceeds went into the coffers of Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party.28

1 The date has also been reported as November 28 or 29, but November 30 is believed correct.

2 Jade Fortune International Co. Ltd. shipping invoice dated November 13, 1998; undated Jade Fortune International packing list; Bill of Lading prepared by Long Shun Marine Company, dated November 20, 1998.

3 Human Rights Watch interview with port worker, Sihanoukville, March 15, 1999.

4 Sophie Biays and Peter Odermatt, AHealth Needs of Risk Groups Exposed to Mercury-Containing Waste in Sihanoukville,@ Médecins Sans Frontières, January 17, 1999.

5 Human Rights Watch interviews with Pich Sovann=s family and fellow port workers, March 1999.

6 Formosa=s major shareholder, company Chairman Wang Yung-ching, and his family are worth an estimated $4.9 billion, according to Asiaweek (Bangkok), February 5, 1999 (citing The Australian=s annual Asian families= wealth list, 1998).

7 Nan Ya Plastics Corporation web page (

8 Statements made by the Kaohsiung County Department of Environmental Protection and reported statements by Formosa Plastics Corporation President C.T. Lee.

9 Rone Tempest, AAsia=s Toxic Formula for Waste,@ Los Angeles Times, March 4, 1999.

10 Ibid.

11 Environmental Policy Monthly, Volume II, Issue 7, January 1999, published by the Environmental Protection Administration, Taiwan, and a briefing paper sent to Human Rights Watch by the EPA, March 1999.

12 Ibid.

13 Unofficial translation from the Chinese of AContract for the Project of Eliminating [Waste],@ prepared by the Ching Fu company; undated and unsigned, the contract may have been a draft.

14 Environmental Policy Monthly, Volume II, Issue 7, January 1999.

15 It has been widely reported that Formosa was fined Taiwan$150,000 (the equivalent of less than U.S.$5,000), which is the maximum fine for a single breach of Taiwanese environmental regulations. However, Formosa was in fact fined a total of Taiwan$1.56 million (around U.S.$48,000) for twelve breaches of the law, according to Ting Shan-long, director of the Kaohsiung County Department of Environmental Protection, in a March 31,1999 letter to Human Rights Watch.

16 Green Formosa Front, letter to Human Rights Watch, March 25, 1999.

17 Environmental Policy Monthly, Volume II, Issue 7.

18 There are two known contracts between Jade Fortune and Muth Vuthy, one dated September 17, 1998 and the second dated December 3, 1998. The first contract refers to Muth Vuthy as being responsible for disposing of an unspecified amount of Anon-hazardous industrial waste@ at a Cambodian landfill. It makes Muth Vuthy responsible for securing customs and import clearance, and for meeting Cambodian environmental regulations. Muth Vuthy was to be paid a price of U.S.$20 a ton of waste by Jade Fortune. The second contract, prepared by Muth Vuthy, refers to the importation of 2,799 tons of Acement cake.@ It makes Muth Vuthy liable for import and customs procedures and paying taxes but does not refer to environmental regulations.

19 Agreement between Formosa Plastics Corporation and the Cambodian Government Commission for Negotiation, signed in Phnom Penh, February 25, 1999.

20 Khuy Sokhoeun and Ham Samnang, ATwo Taiwanese Sought in Connection with Toxic Dumping,@ The Cambodia Daily (Phnom Penh), February 9, 1999.

21 Khuy Sokhoeun, ARCAF Officer Who Sold Land Queried Over Toxic Waste Site,@ The Cambodia Daily, February 24, 1999.

22 Cambodia does not have the technology or expertise to test materials for toxins.

23 The reason for this increase is unexplained. See Khuy Sokhoeun and Ham Samnang, A3 Charged in Sihanoukville Waste Case,@ The Cambodia Daily, February 15, 1999.

24 Memorandum to Sihanoukville Tax and Customs Department from National Director In Saroeun, December 4, 1998.

25 Kimsan Chantara and Van Roeun, ATaiwan Not the First to Attempt to Dump Waste,@ The Cambodia Daily, December 23, 1998.

26 AWaste Triggers Protests, Police Gunfire in Sihanoukville,@ The Cambodia Daily, December 21, 1998.

27 Lor Chandara and Jeff Smith, AS=ville Official Denies Role in Shipment,@ The Cambodia Daily, December 23, 1998.

28 See Jeff Smith and Van Roeun, ACouncil of Ministers >Knew of Waste Deal,=@ The Cambodia Daily, January 14, 1999, and Royal Government of Cambodia Statement issued in response, January 15, 1999.

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