Contractor subverts river dredging project in shocking fashion

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Thanh Nien exposé finds violations committed by younger brother of the director of the Vung Tau Port Authority, which oversees dredging project

A dredge works on a section of the Thi Vai River near Posco Port in Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province. A contractor has been illegally discharging dredged mud from a section of the river in another part of the section itself instead of the sea as required.

In a maneuver that defies logic and common sense, a major project to dredge the Thi Vai River has defeated its purpose with the contractor discharging the dredged mud in the same river section.

The contractor, a self-styled "dredging tycoon" who boasts he can get away with anything because of connections in high places, has been saving money by not dumping the dredged mud in the sea as required, a Thanh Nien investigation has found.

The 76-kilometer river flows through Dong Nai and Ba Ria Vung Tau provinces and hosts 20 international ports.

Le Van Chien, director of the Vung Tau Port Authority, said his agency has contracted two companies to dredge a section of the Thi Vai River near the Posco Port and discharge the mud near Buoy Zero some ten kilometers away at the sea.

However, Thanh Nien found virtually all barges discharging mud at the same section of the river to significantly reduce costs.

Notably, Le Van Thang, the director of the Ba Ria-Vung Tau-based Minh Thang Company one of the two contracted companies is Chien's younger brother.

Last December, border guards of the Ba Ria-Vung Tau Port caught three barges red-handed discharging mud dredged near a port on Thi Vai at a nearby section.

Only the three captains of the barges were held responsible, but the company got away scot free.

Thanh Nien's investigation found virtually all barges discharging mud at the same section with permission or directions from the leader of the dredging company.

Six dredges and about ten barges have been operating in Thi Vai River but mostly in the evening and at night to foil detection.

Most barges carry mud dredged near the Posco Port bank and cross the 700-meter wide river section to discharge it near the other bank. Each trip takes around 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, another barge was found sailing along the bank and dumping the mud without even crossing to the other side.

It takes around three hours to fill a 1,000-ton barge and they were dredging and discharge more than 9,000 tons of mud a day on average.

The dumping was done in a matter of seconds directly from barge's hold.

A maritime expert who spoke on condition of anonymity said it would take up to eight hours for a barge to carry mud to the designated discharging point and return.

"The contractor has saved much time and huge fuel costs with this ploy," he said.

The fraudulent discharge of mud is the latest major scandal involving the Thi Vai River after the pollution it suffered for years at the hands of Taiwanese monosodium-glutamate maker Vedan was exposed five years go.

In September 2008, government inspectors caught Vedan Vietnam dumping untreated wastewater into the river by hiding pipes underground. Investigations found it had been engaged in the practice for 14 years.

An Environment Ministry-authorized study by the Institute of Environment and Natural Resources found in December 2009 that Vedan was responsible for 90 percent of the pollution in the Thi Vai River.

"˜Dredging tycoon'

At the heart of the dredging and dumping scandal is the role of Thang, Thanh Nien found.

The Vung Tau Port Authority, headed by Thang's brother Chien, is responsible for managing all activities in the rivers and seas of Ba Ria-Vung Tau, including a major section of the Thi Vai River as it flows through the southern province.

Thanh Nien, posing as the owner of a dredging service who wants to become a sub-contractor for the dredging project, was told by Thang that he has the power to obtain dredging projects in rivers and estuaries in the area.

"I am a dredging tycoon in Vung Tau over the past ten years. I know everything. Find me if you want to work in the marine and waterway fields," he said, adding that he was director of both the dredging company and a navigation company.

He said his company is dredging about 1 million cubic meters of mud near the Posco Port for VND68 billion (US$3.25 million).

His company has assigned three barges to the site while others belong to sub-contractors from Ho Chi Minh City, he said.

Asked where the mud would be discharged, Thang said: "The Ba Ria-Vung Tau People's Committee allows us to discharge near the Buoy Zero. But you can just follow me. I will be responsible for anything that happens."

"I am the younger brother of Vung Tau Port Authority director Le Van Chien. I can handle everything like obtaining license and dealing with inspectors and border guards.

"They always notify me before inspecting. I often allow the workers to rest for a few days and resume their work when the inspection is over. Would you feel safe then?"

Thang also said his brother Chien has been director of the agency for three five-year terms and has good relations with central senior government officials.

Asked about the possibility of brother's firm illegally discharging mud in the same section of the river, Chien said: "He is responsible for any wrongdoing and it does not involve me."

The maritime expert said that the Vung Tau Port Authority is responsible for the illegal discharge of dredged mud.

"The agency can manage dredging activities of those firms by installing monitoring electronic devices to the vessels and inspecting them frequently.

The important thing is whether they have done so."

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