About a month back, tonnes of dead fish washed up on hundreds of kilometres of Vietnam’s coastline, from Ha Tinh to Hue. This was suspected to be the result of a mass leak of toxic chemicals from an industrial plant. The area in Ha Tinh province is home to a large steel mill run by a Taiwanese conglomerate, Formosa. The company has a long history of environmental scandals spanning across the globe. However, the steel company, Hung Nghiep Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Company (FHS) refused to take any responsibility for the disaster and instead raised questions about the country’s capacities to detect and handle large scale pollution.
More shockingly, Chou Chun Fan, chief of the Formosa’s representative office in Hanoi made some outrageous statements after fielding questions from reporters on April 25. The company admitted that it has a large sewage pipe going straight into the sea, but claimed repeatedly that the discharged wastewater has been treated. The reporters had asked him if the sewage pipe installed under the sea dumps wastewater from the industry directly into the sea.
In response, Chou said, “I admit that the discharge of wastewater will affect the environment to some extent, and it is obvious that the sea will have less fish. But before we built the plant, we had got the permission from the Vietnamese government. He continued, “To be honest, we must lose some to win some. You want the fish, or the steel plant? You have to choose. If you want both, I will tell you that you can’t, even if you are the prime minister.”
The agriculture ministry, on the same day, ruled out the possibility of any diseases causing the fish deaths and insisted that the substance killing them “could be biological, chemical or toxic substances like cyanide.” The Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology (VAST) also denied claims that some earthquakes that hit Japan’s Kumamoto City on April 14 and 16 had affected the Vietnamese coast, causing the fish deaths. Satellite images also showed no major oil spills which could have caused this disaster. Thus all fingers seemed to be pointing at Formosa at this point of time.
In a later development, nevertheless, Hoang Dat Thuyen, director of Formosa’s environment safety department, admitted that the company had for several years imported a large amount of chemicals to clean the pipe, but the diluted and treated substances were then discharged into the sea without the Vietnamese authorities’ permission.
“We did not see any regulation saying that we must seek authorities’ permission when cleaning the pipe,” he said. The company went ahead and organized a press conference to apologize, as public outrage mounted in response to the statement by Chou Chunfan.
However, in a surprising twist to the story, the agriculture ministry denied any link between Formosa and the massive fish kill.
On April 28, the deputy environment minister said that they failed to find any evidence to indict Formosa. “Up until now, our investigation and evidence collection has not yet found any evidence to conclude there is an association between Formosa and the other plants in Vung Ang and the mass fish deaths,” said Natural Resources and Environment Deputy Minister Vo Tuan Nhan. “Based on data collected and analyzed by science and government agencies, we have not found any environmental data that exceeds the acceptable standards,” he added.
“There are two main reasons that may have led to the mass fish deaths,” Nhan said. “The first is due to the effects of a chemical toxin generated by people on land or sea, and the second is due to an unusual environmental phenomenon combined with peoples’ influence that causes a red tide. This is a very complicated disaster that has happened in many places in the world, and we need time to find out the cause in a scientific manner,” he said. “There are cases in other countries that are similar to what happened here, and they took many years to find the cause.”
Many activists and experts were left bewildered at the revelations made by the government. Dr. Le Phat Quoi, a professor at the Ho Chi Minh City National University, does not seem to be convinced by the government’s conclusion. “It did not publicize detailed data related to the tests on the seawater and the dead fish either,” he said. “Moreover, there were reports that tests conducted in Thua Thien-Hue Province found some heavy metals, including chromium, in the seawater.” This, he believes, led to the poisoning of the fish.
Vu Trong Hong, former deputy minister of water resource, said the environment ministry must clarify which chemical agents had poisoned the fish, who used these agents and how. “To know whether the mass fish deaths were caused by Formosa’s wastewater, I think we should invite scientists to investigate,” he said.
Dr To Van Truong, another respected environmental expert also accuses Formosa, “The solution used to clean sewage pipe is usually very hard to be treated, as it contains many substances that are not easily diluted and decomposed,” he said.
Even as this endless blame game continues, it is the common and poor people of Vietnam that suffer. The environmental disaster has affected the livelihoods of fishermen and tourism along the central coast and Vietnam’s $7 billion seafood industry seems to be in jeopardy.