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The Mercury-Laced Waste that Formosa Plastics Sent to Cambodia -- There's More Where That Came From!

Update Report by Green Formosa Front, T. J. Wu, Director
Organized & translated by Green Party Taiwan, Linda Gail Arrigo, International Affairs - July 14, 1999
"God is not a man that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?" - Numbers 23:19

In mid-December 1998, environmental officials in Cambodia began to suspect that a new waste site near the port of Sihanoukville contained some seriously toxic substance, not merely "construction waste" as claimed on shipping records when it arrived from Taiwan on November 30 (The Cambodia Daily, December 15). A worker who had cleaned out the ship's hold died in less than 24 hours; reportedly his extremities turned dark. Nearby villagers who scavenged the site--a hectare or more covered with 3,000 tons of a crumbly light and dark gray substance rather like partly-formed cement, spilling out of the white plastic bags it was once packed in--became ill and two died. The reports set off a panic. In an exodus of some 10,000 people from the port area, four more people died in traffic accidents and one in a riot against the corrupt officials who allowed the shipment and falsified the papers (Reuters December 23). Cambodia called out the army and repacked the waste in metal drums. Thus began an international outcry against one of Taiwan's leading corporations, Formosa Plastics, for shipping dangerous mercury-contaminated waste to a poor Southeast Asian nation with hardly the resources to evaluate the material and protect itself.

Green Formosa Front arrived in Cambodia on December 21 and brought back samples of the material to Taiwan. Other samples were tested in Singapore and Japan and by other Taiwan agencies. All samples were found to be in excess of standards for the danger of mercury leaching in waste that can be buried in landfills, some by a slight margin and some by several orders of magnitude (Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Process 0.2 ppm is the standard for Taiwan and the U.S.). Japanese tests showed total mercury parts per million of 3984, 2794, 724 496, and 97 in five samples, a variability not surprising given that the waste is of varying color and consistency. So where did the stuff come from?

The plastic bags were labeled Nanya Plastics, which is one of the members of the Formosa Plastics conglomerate. Formosa Plastics acknowledged that it was the source of the material, a waste product from the production of chlorine from salt for use in production of poly-vinyl chloride, but the corporation denied responsibility for shipping it to Cambodia, since it had delegated the disposal to a contractor. Under Taiwan law, Formosa Plastics has no liability for damages resulting from the disposal of the waste. Formosa Plastics issued a statement describing the type of waste as being of relatively low and presumably safe mercury content, Hg in compound with sulfur at about 100 ppm, a waste resulting from the mercury-cell process common in the chlor-alkali industry, and stabilized by mixing with cement.

The bulk of the waste is calcium carbonate (CaCO-3), salt (NaCl), and Magnesium oxide (Mg(OH)-2). The process was phased out in Taiwan in 1989. Still, under international pressure Formosa Plastics repacked the 3,000 tons of waste in metal drums, removed them from the site, and after being blocked in a proposal to send the waste to California, shipped the waste back to Taiwan on April 9, 1999. The drums now sit in a specially-prepared site at the Kaohsiung port until further notice, while Formosa Plastics pays hefty fines for failing to remove them within 60 days (China Times Express, June 7, 1999).

End of story? It has been easy for Taiwan to ignore the court processes in Cambodia, which recently handed down stiff sentences to two officers of the Taiwan disposal company (Jade Fortune Corporation), tried in absentia--but did not convict any Cambodian officials. Two Cambodian human rights activists have also been sentenced in connection with the riot, but none of this touches Taiwan.

Not the end of story. Investigators in Taiwan trying to find out how the waste got shipped to Cambodia found a trail of fraud and flagrant irresponsibility--waste disposal sub-contractors had dumped the stuff far from the stated destinations, not just abroad but at home as well; they arrested the head of Ying Tai Corporation (United Daily 22, 1999). On January 3 National Assemblyman Liu Ming-Lung (formerly with Taiwan's central Environmental Protection Administration under Chao Shao-Kang, who later led the New Party break-away from the ruling Kuomintang Party), announced that at least 100,000 tons of mercury-contaminated waste had been dumped in landfills and construction sites all around Taiwan. Soon residents in Chih Shan Yen, Hsin Yuan Township in Pingtung, the county at the far southern tip of Taiwan, wondered if the stuff dumped at the location of a former brick kiln nearby, two years previous, was the same substance. Duck and fish farms nearby had seen some die-offs of their animals. After 400 villagers stormed the EPA on April 4, 1999, it was finally forced to test the site and admit that mercury-contaminated waste--in the Pingtung case over 5,000 tons not even stabilized with sulfur and cement--had been churned out by industry for a decade with virtually no control on or concern for where it went.

According to environmental activists in Taiwan, such reckless industrial policy has brought Taiwan an uncontrolled disaster of gargantuan proportions, a quiet time bomb that may decimate the coming generation. It would seem that Taiwan could have learned from Japan's Minamata Disease tragedy of the 1960's. Mercury that is leached into the water table can become organic mercury, be absorbed by plants and animals, and move up the food chain to accumulate in the human body. Mercury attacks the central nervous system, leading to damage to vision, hearing, and brain function, to uncontrolled tremors of the extremities, and even to death. Embryos and infants are especially sensitive to mercury contamination, and may be severely retarded and physically impaired. In addition, mercury affects respiratory, digestive, and urinary systems, and may cause cancer.

Now that the list of producers of this chloride-production waste has been tallied up, it is found that seven Taiwan producers of chlorine by this process produced an estimated 130,000 tons in the 1970's and 80's. The whereabouts of only about 10,000 tons is known for certain; the remaining 120,000 tons are unaccounted for. The Cambodian heap was only the tip of the iceberg, and the rest is a hidden disaster in the making in Taiwan.

There is little sign that Taiwan's EPA has the will or the ability to deal with this and with the other toxic side-products of Taiwan's rapid and largely unregulated industrial development. In the wake of the Cambodia incident, laws have been passed that inflict criminal punishment on producers, transporters, and landowners in cases of illegal toxic waste disposal, but it remains to be seen whether they will be enforced.

The EPA has not taken on the task of educating the population to be wary for its own health and to participate in the tasks of discovery and resolution. As it is, Taiwan's EPA in recent years has been busy fending off protest against government projects that involve building dams or destroying wetlands or covering up beaches and waterways with cement.

Green Formosa Front and Green Party Taiwan will certainly be involved in continuing to call the government and Taiwan's industrialists to account for the ongoing destruction of Taiwan's natural beauty and resources--and we believe that growing awareness by the public is gradually shifting the balance of power towards the Green.

Contact us for more information--and especially if you want to help.

Linda Gail Arrigo (Green Party Taiwan)
Tel 886-2-2362-1362 Fax 886-2-2362-1361

T. J.Wu/Joyce Fu (Green Formosa Front)
e-mail Tel 886-2-2708-0961 Fax


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