Vo Tuan Nhan, Vietnam's deputy minister of natural resources and environment, addresses the press during a briefing on mass fish deaths in Hanoi, Apr. 27, 2016.
Vietnam’s fishing industry and environmental experts have expressed concern about the waste treatment system of a new paper plant in Hau Giang province in southern Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region, fearing it could discharge contaminated effluents that harm the area and kill fish.
Their concerns come about three months after a mass fish kill that some believe resulted from the discharge of contaminated effluents by another factory in the central coastal provinces. The fallout from tons of dead fish floating ashore included rare mass protests over lost livelihoods.
The Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers (VASEP), which fears that the U.S. $1.2 billion paper plant scheduled to begin operations in August will cause environmental pollution and contaminate seafood in the area, has asked the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment to assess the situation, according to Vietnam’s Dan Tri International news website.
The ministry in turn has asked the local environmental agency and police to inspect the plant’s waste treatment system to ensure it adheres to laws and regulations. It will also ask experts to inspect the system and scrutinize its trial operation plan and waste treatment monitoring situation, the news agency said.
Hong Kong’s Lee & Man Paper Group, which has invested in the plant, conducted an environmental impact assessment in 2007 when the project was approved, and determined that it will discharge about 28,500 metric tons of sodium hydroxide into the Hau River annually, much more than plants with modern technology discharge, Dan Tri said.
Le Huy Ba, former director of the Institute for Environment, Science, Technology and Management at the Institute of Industry in Ho Chi Minh City, told RFA that the plant’s obsolete technology and use of sodium hydroxide, acid, and other chemicals will spell disaster for the area.
“The Chinese plant uses very obsolete Chinese technology, so it will affect the whole area,” he told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
“Water in that area does not flow out to the big rivers easily because of the geographical terrain,” he said. “Many streams in the area will be polluted. Fish and shrimp farms will have difficulties, and there will be problems like the ones in the Buoi River in Thanh Hoa province.”
Vietnam’s Ministry of Natural Resource and Environment issued fines totaling 3.9 billion Vietnamese dong (U.S. $175,000) to three companies in north-central Vietnam’s Thanh Hoa Province on May 17 for discharging untreated wastewater that killed thousands of tons of fish in the Buoi River, according to a Vietnamese media report.
‘We can’t predict everything’
An expert from the ministry who declined to be named told RFA that authorities in Hau Giang province had approved the paper plant—the largest such factory in the country—but not the environment ministry.
“But when we heard about it, we did go to check on [it] and look into people’s complaints,” he told RFA. “It’s part of our management obligation to assess impacts on the environment and address people’s concerns.”
The ministry needs to conduct an investigation before reaching any conclusion, he said.
“We can’t predict anything,” he added. “It’s difficult to assess the problem. If the project had been approved by the ministry, things would have been easier for us.”
Le Huy Ba pointed out that such environmental impact assessments are usually commissioned by project investors who pay consultants to conduct them.
Those vying for the projects will offer discounts to get the work, and then tell investors information that will please them, even if that information is not correct, he said.
“This is the wrong thing to do,” Ba said. “The government should have a fund to finance this, and it would have to be managed by the government. It needs to hire independent consultants, so that the assessments have nothing to do with the investors.”
Vu Ngoc Bao, chairman of the Vietnamese Pulp and Paper Association, told RFA that news about the plant should sound an alarm to companies about the environment when they do business in Vietnam.
“I think this is good for any companies operating in Vietnam because it will make them comply with the law, including regulations on the waste release,” he said.
He also said the Vietnamese government needs to be stern in its assessment and monitoring of the issue, while the association steps up its efforts in monitoring companies and recommending that they follow government regulations.
“This plant has yet to begin operating, but once it starts we will closely monitor its environmental commitment,” Bao said. “We can assure that we will work with Hau Giang province to monitor this project.”
Report on fish kill
In the meantime, the Vietnamese government has postponed by one day to Thursday the date on which it will inform the public about its findings from an investigation of a mass fish kill along its central coastal provinces.
The government previously said it would issue information on Wednesday.
The government, which has so far remained tight-lipped about the incident, is also preparing a report to submit to lawmakers when they meet in July.
At least 100 tons of dead fish began washing ashore in Ha Tinh, Quang Binh, Quang Tri, and Thua Thien-Hue provinces in early April, apparently killed by industrial effluents.
The cause of the catastrophe remains unknown, although it is widely believed that sewage-pipe runoff from a huge steel plant run by Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corporation, a subsidiary of Formosa Plastics Corporation of Taiwan, poisoned the fish.
The company has denied responsibility.
Many residents of the affected areas, whose livelihoods depend on the seafood industry, have been out of work since the disaster occurred.
Now the Vietnamese government has proposed a plan that will provide new job training for 1.4 million people whose livelihoods have been destroyed in the central coastal provinces affected by the incident, Vietnamese state media reported.
Labor Minister Dao Ngoc Dung told the leaders of Quang Tri province during a meeting on Tuesday that the government will soon submit a plan to Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc to help train locals in four provinces, state media reported.
Nguyen Van Hung, the Communist Party chief of Quang Tri, told the government the same day that 7,000 workers in 16 of his province’s coastal villages have been directly affected by the mass fish deaths and have been out of jobs since the incident occurred, according to the Dan Tri report.
Quang Tri officials want government assistance to be directly mainly toward women who previously sold fish and fish sauce so they can be trained to work in the province’s three garment factories, it said.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.