Thousands of people from Ha Nam Province have sought relief from the thick factory smoke and omnipresent cement dust that's plagued their community for years, but authorities have failed to act.
Official figures from the province’s environmental division show that 11 factories operate in Thanh Liem District and produce between 100,000 and 950,000 tons of cement each, every year.
Three such factories operate in Bong Lang Village in Thanh Nghi Commune for over two years.
The last to arrive was the 950,000-ton Xuan Thanh plant, which joined the Hoang Long and Thanh Thang factories.
The representatives of more than 10,000 villagers have petitioned different agencies, seeking relief from the oppressive pollution.
Frustrated by inaction, the villagers marked New Year's Day by putting up tents outside the Xuan Thanh factory.
The demonstration forced Ha Nam officials to call a meeting between residents and representatives of Hoang Long and Xuan Thanh.
Company leaders apologized and promised to improve the situation, but residents say their words proved hollow.
Instead of cleaning up their acts, they say, the factories just began discharging their emissions in the middle of the night.
“When we surrounded their gate, they said that they would fix the pollution as soon as possible, but they did not keep that promise,” said Le Hai Du, a resident of Bong Lang village.
In early September, Thanh Nien ran a story about how cement factories had destroyed the lives of residents in Kien Luong Town, the capital of the namesake district in the southern province of Kien Giang.
More than 2,000 kilometers away, the same dark picture persists.
Roughly ten people recently gathered at Du’s house to vent their anger to a visiting reporter.
Pham Van Lich said that for more than two years, they've been stuck between factory smoke falling from the sky and cement dust rising from the ground.
“We’ve suffered from this mess," Lich said. "Dust and smoke interfere with our lives, our meals, our sleep, and everything else.”
Du’s wife Dinh Thi Tai once measured the pollution herself by measuring the dust accumulated on her front patio in a single night.
She collected nearly a kilogram from the 7.5 square meter area in front of her house before an audience of neighbors.
Tai has covered her house with nearly 100 square meters of canvas and cleans every night before going to bed, like most of her neighbors.
Run a finger across the furniture or the tray used to serve meals in the kitchen and you'll still find it caked in white powder.
"We’ve suffered from this mess. Dust and smoke interfere with our lives, our meals, our sleep, and everything else,”
Pham Van Lich said about three cement factories in his village in Ha Nam Province
One couple invited a Thanh Nien reporter to spend the night to witness the discharge.
“It’s started,” Du said as the sky began to blur with smoke at 6:15pm.
“That’s early. Normally they start emitting from after 11 p.m.,” he said.
Du went up to his rooftop to watch columns of black and white smoke rising from the factories’ chimneys.
Fifteen minutes later, the smoke had swallowed the whole village.
Officials: Too busy to check
Tran Dang Trinh, who monitors environmental issues at Ha Nam’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said the factories have not provided an account of how they have or have not addressed the pollution.
Xuan Thanh factory hasn't even reported on the status of several environmental protection measures it pledged to perform while applying for a business license.
They were supposed to complete the measures before going into operation, Trinh said.
He said Xuan Thanh’s factory is newer than the other two factories and its technology is “still okay."
The others rely on outdated technology, he claimed.
But he said his department's staff “hasn't had a chance” to go down to the factories to assess their emissions.
Pollution that kills
Bong Lang villagers said many more people have developed respiratory diseases since the Xuan Thanh factory arrived.
In one part of the village, more than ten residents have died of lung cancer since 2012.
The claims could not be verified with official statistics.
Cement factories have cast a pall over several rural communities in Ha Nam Province. Photo: Hoang Long
However, Dr Tran Van Thuan, head of the Research Institute for Cancer Prevention and deputy director of the Hanoi-based K Hospital for cancer patients, said environmental factors including toxic chemicals and air pollution have proven to be the cause of more than 80 percent of cancer cases.
Thuan said more research is needed to identify potentially carcinogenic elements in factory emissions.
He said a survey should be conducted to determine the numbers of cancer patients according to age and ensure that it's normal.
Dr Nguyen Thanh Ha, deputy head of the Environment Management Department at the Health Ministry, said industrial dust has negatively impacted overall health in the village.
But the dust must be analyzed before any action can be taken, Ha said.
The doctor said he and his colleagues acknowledged the dangers of high concentrations of certain elements used in cement production and added that the factories are responsible for testing their emissions and publishing the results.
In principal, a factory’s emissions must meet safety standards before it can begin operating, he added.