Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Alleged Sangke River Polluter, Chinese-owned Phoenix Operating Again in Battambang

Sangke River was polluted by a Chinese pharmacy company which leaked chemicals into the river. Photo taken on August 4, 2023. (CamboJA/Sok Savy)
Sangke River was polluted by a Chinese pharmacy company which leaked chemicals into the river. Photo taken on August 4, 2023. (CamboJA/Sok Savy)

Phoenix, a pharmaceutical company based in Battambang province, which released wastewater into Sangke River last August, has not yet complied with an order by the Ministry of Environment to relocate and restore the environment surrounding the river. It started operating again earlier in December. 

The ministry fined the company nearly half a million dollars and ordered it to relocate 10 kilometers away from the river.

It has been almost four months since Phoenix Industrial Co Ltd, a Chinese-owned company in Treng commune, allegedly discharged liquid and solid waste, and toxic substances into the river, impacting the area’s biodiversity and people’s livelihoods. 

Despite the deadline for environmental restoration and relocation, the company has not complied with the ministry’s order.

On August 4, a letter by the Ministry of Industry, Science, Technology and Innovation said Phoenix was releasing “black liquid waste” into the river, which led to the halting of operations for two weeks. The ministry noted that it was the third time Phoenix caused serious environmental damage. 

Industry, science, technology and innovation ministry spokesperson Heng Sokong told CamboJA that they are focusing on technical work. When the company is found to be at fault, it would be suspended for two weeks and asked to adjust the technical procedure and treatment of the tank to meet the standards.

Recently, Sokong said, officials from the standards department under the Department of Industrial Technology as well as a food chemist visited the factory and found that it had improved their standards according to legal requirements. Thus, the ministry decided to allow Phoenix to reopen earlier this month. 

“Two weeks ago, our officers and provincial authorities went to check again and found that the company had improved its production line, technology and treatment tank, so we let them reopen the factory. An agreement was signed between the authority and company to ensure this does not happen again,” said Sokong.

Rattanak Mondul district governor Kuy Vanno claimed that he is not sure if the company relocated or restored the environmental conditions in the area. However, his commune staff joined the evaluation of the site with the industry and innovation, and environment ministries in November. 

“I’m not an expert. You should ask the environment department or department of industry and innovation as they might have other regulations. Also, this issue is at the national level where decisions are made,” said Vanno.

Batambang provincial Governor Sok Lou did not respond to queries whether the company relocated or not, stating that the issue was out of his control and suggested that CamboJA reach out to the Environment Ministry and other relevant ministries.

Battambang provincial Environment Department Director Kort Boran said he has not received any updates on the relocation of the company as the matter was under the control of the Environment Ministry, but learned that Phoenix has built a structure in the company.

“I heard that they confirmed [that they would pay] the fine and requested for a delay till the end of December this year to move to the new location. We noticed that the company is more careful than before and is building a dam, but I am not sure of the ministry’s decision on the punishment,” said Boran.

As a director of the environment department, Boran is waiting for the final decision from the ministry regarding this company. “We don’t know what the punishment is and its outcome … we dare not ask,” added Boran.

Phoenix was ordered by the Environment Ministry to pay a fine of $465,000 to the Environment and Social Fund by October 20, 2023 and restore the environment within and surrounding the enterprise by November 20, 2023.

A Phoenix staff, who spoke to CamboJA on the telephone, said their company started operating earlier this month after the company “promised not to commit the same mistake”. The staff, who declined to be named, also claimed that the company has restored the environment. 

“The industry and innovation ministry has issued a letter for us to start operating early this month,” the Phoenix staff said.

On relocating to a new site, the staff said Phoenix appealed to the environment ministry to allow it to operate in the same location, promising instead to restore the surrounding environment and pay the fine.

“We promised that this [pollution] will not happen again. As for the compensation, we have already paid to the environment ministry,” the staff added.

Heng Kimhong, research and advocacy program​​ manager at the Cambodian Youth Network (CYN), said the lack of transparency and making sure the company complied with the order is a failure on the part of the ministry in dealing with the pollution problem. The authorities should further enforce the law in accordance with transparency.

“The new minister did not update [the public] on the case and it was not clear if there was any fine. If the authorities allow some companies to do whatever they want, it will lead to corruption and anarchy,” said Kimhong.

The company “intentionally” released waste into the river which killed fish, neglecting to properly dispose of its liquid waste, according to the letter by the Environment Ministry. It said Phoenix has been operating without a report on its environmental and social effects. 

Kimhong mentioned that companies operating in Cambodia must respect and follow the law and other regulations, and apply safety standards, otherwise Cambodians will become the victims. The people do not receive any benefit from developments that affect public health and the environment. 

Adhoc coordinator for Battambang Yin Mengly told Cambo​JA that ministries, provincial departments and authorities should strictly implement the ministerial order and prioritize public interest.

“The ministry has the right to revoke the license if the company does not comply with the order. The ministry represents the government and they represent public interest while the company is an individual,” Mengly said. “It seems that there is no cooperation.” joint hand control.”

Mengly blamed the relevant ministries for allowing the company to operate without an environmental assessment resulting in environmental problems which affect the public. This might deter other investors from operating in Cambodia due to limited law enforcement.

“Not conducting an environmental assessment is a negligence by the ministries and departments. Why wasn’t there an environmental assessment? What is behind that assessment?” Mengly asked.

Oeurn Panchakneat, vice-director of cabinet under the Ministry of Environment declined to provide an interview with CamboJA via the phone and instructed that a formal interview request be made by writing to her ministry.