Old, dirty industrial park continues to poison Vietnam river

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7 billion liters of untreated wastewater discharged to Dong Nai River every day, but relocation plan has ulterior motives, critics allege

A floating fish farm on Dong Nai River. Ho Chi Minh City authorities have asked Dong Nai Province to facilitate relocation of the Bien Hoa 1 Industrial Park because it is heavily polluting the Dong Nai River, a major water source for the city. Photo by Kim Cuong

Nguyen Van Chinh and other fish farmers in Dong Nai Province's Bien Hoa Town have fashioned themselves as scientists these days, even if their tools are of the miners' canary bird variety.

They take turns to detect water pollution caused by the Bien Hoa 1 Industrial Park and a nearby paper firm.

"We put a small cage with a fish at the section where they discharge water," he said. "If the fish is dead in the morning, they must have stealthily discharged untreated wastewater at night."

Chinh squarely blames the factories for polluting the river frequently, causing their fish to die very often over the past ten years.

No one is denying any longer that pollution in the Dong Nai River has assumed very serious proportions. It is the main water source of 20 million people in Dong Nai, Ho Chi Minh City and nearby provinces, but authorities have dragged their feet on taking any effective action to stop the situation from going from very bad to much worse.

Last week, the Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee asked Dong Nai authorities to facilitate relocation of the Bien Hoa 1 Industrial Park that was built in the 1960s and has been discharging large volume of untreated wastewater into the river.

"Pollution in the Dong Nai River has worsened to the point that the [tap] water plants can't treat it. Wastewater discharged from the Bien Hoa 1 Industrial Park is one of the major pollution sources," the city administration said in the note sent to the neighboring province.

HCMC will need 3,700 million liters of water a day by 2025, and most of it is supposed to come from the Dong Nai River.

As a member of the Dong Nai River Basin Environment Protection Committee, HCMC supports the relocation of the industrial park to protect the water resource, the note said.

Daily dose of toxins

Bien Hoa 1, the oldest industrial park in southern Vietnam, is located on a 320-hectare (790-acre) area on the banks of the Dong Nai River in Bien Hoa Town and has 105 companies and factories that employ more than 26,000 workers.

"The industrial park has contributed remarkably to the industrial development in the province. However, the pollution it has caused is very serious, especially water pollution in the Dong Nai River," the Sai Gon Tiep Thi (Saigon Marketing) newspaper quoted Tran Van Tu, a member of parliament from the province, as saying.

He said the industrial park discharges more than eight billion liters of wastewater every day, of which seven billion liters are being discharged directly into the river.

"Thus, the relocation of the polluters is a real and urgent demand," he said.

A study by the Dong Nai Environmental Monitoring Center in March found serious pollution in the river, especially in the section near the Bien Hoa 1 Industrial Park.

The river water contains high concentrations of metals, organic substances and bacteria like E. Coli that exceed safe levels for humans.

Parliamentarians from Dong Nai Province have recently urged the National Assembly's Science, Technology and Environment Committee to study the case and issue relevant policies and regulations for the relocation.

Dong Nai Province has appointed the Sonadezi Corporation to prepare a plan to relocate the companies in the industrial park to other sites.

Do Thi Thu Hang, chairman of Sonadezi, also a lawmaker, said her company has proposed several incentive policies for displaced companies including full tax exemption for four years and 50 percent for the following nine years.

Controversial plan

Chu Thanh Son, Sonadezi's deputy general director, told Vietweek on Wednesday that his company had submitted the relocation plan to relevant central agencies for approval.

In September 2009, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung had agreed with the proposal to relocate the Bien Hoa 1 Industrial Park.

Less than a month later, the Dong Nai People's Committee appointed Sonadezi to draft a VND17 trillion (US$808 million) plan that will change the old industrial park into a commercial and trading hub.

The plan would move the companies to other industrial parks, starting in 2011 and finishing in 2022. Nearly VND4 trillion would be earmarked for supporting the relocation.

However, a 2010 survey found 44 percent of the companies do not want to move away because it would be too costly and it would be difficult to find workers in the new location, apart from the difficulties they would face by a pause in production.

Son said the old industrial park was "messy" because the factories were built many years earlier without wastewater treatment plants.

Asked why Bien Hoa 1 does not build a wastewater treatment system instead of resettling the companies, he said it is "possible but difficult" because they would have to install pipes through the basement of many factories.

Critics have questioned the plan's real purpose.

They say authorities should have addressed the pollution problem in the industrial park without having to move it.

The Thoi Bao Kinh Te Saigon (Saigon Economic Times) newspaper said in an editorial that although Dinh Quoc Thai, the Dong Nai mayor, cited pollution as the reason for relocation, it was not the primary motive.

"It is not more difficult to treat polluted wastewater in Bien Hoa 1 than in some future commercial and urban area," it said.

The paper said the actual reason behind the move was the value of the 320-hectare swathe of land that is located less than 30 kilometers from HCMC and near major thoroughfares.

Changing it from an old industrial park into an urban area would multiply its value; who would benefit from the relocation and the conversion of the park into a new commercial and urban area? the paper wrote.

Pham Hong Nhat, an expert in industrial park environment with the HCMC-based Vietnam Institute for Tropical Technology and Environmental Protection, said a good wastewater system would be enough for Bien Hoa 1.

"Pollution is not a rational reason for relocating an industrial park"¦ there must be other sensitive reasons," he told Vietweek. "Maybe it's because there will be big money coming in than the meager rent for the industrial park."

"It could turn to be even more dangerous if these companies are moved to industrial parks upstream. But downstream is also not a good option because the Hoa An Water Plant is located there."

Nguyen Ngoc Ly, director of the NGO, Center on Environment and Community Research, said comprehensive studies should be done before relocating the industrial park.

"Otherwise, it will just be a matter of moving a pollution source from here to there."

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