'River killer' suspended for pollution

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Leather tanning firm in HCMC has litany of violations to its credit
  Boats anchored on the Saigon River, a tributary of Dong Nai River in Ho Chi Minh City. Municipal authorities have suspended operations at leather manufacturer Hao Duong Company for seriously polluting a tributary of the Dong Nai River. Experts say the action is a must as increasing pollution threatens human health and sustainable development. Photo: Bloomberg

Ho Chi Minh City authorities have suspended operations at leather manufacturer Hao Duong Company for seriously polluting the Dong Dien River, a tributary of the Dong Nai River, in Nha Be District.

The company has been discharging untreated wastewater for several years and has engaged in many other violations over the past several years, officials said.

The Ho Chi Minh City Export Processing and Industrial Zones Authority (HEPZA) on proposed on Tuesday that the city administration launch a thorough inspection of the company's violations.

However, Le Manh Ha, deputy chairman of the HCMC People's Committee, the municipal administration, said the company's violations are crystal clear and there should be adequate measures taken against every violation soon.

He ordered HEPZA and relevant authorities to immediately suspend the company's operations, pull down illegally constructed factories, collect environmental protection fees and propose due punishments for other violations.

The Hao Duong Leather Tanning Company, located on an area of 60,000 square meters in the Hiep Phuoc Industrial Park, operates four factories that manufacture about 55 tons of leather per day.

The company was founded in 2003 and has been caught causing pollution ever since. It become notorious for its pollution in the area and has been exposed numerous times in the local media.

Residents in Nha Be's Hiep Phuoc and Long Thoi communes have accused the company of "killing" the Dong Dien River over the past several years. It has been fined many times and was once probed on criminal charges for causing pollution, Sai Gon Tiep Thi (Saigon Marketing) newspaper reported.

According to a report prepared by HEPZA about the company's violations, Hao Duong did not submit an environmental impact assessment to local authorities. Its untreated wastewater has a concentration of pollutants 22 times higher than allowed levels.

Last week, the city government fined the company VND340 million for causing pollution, including the discharge wastewater from a fat treatment plant into the environment.

The HEPZA report says Hao Duong owes more than VND640 million in environmental protection fees from between February 2008 and March 2010. It has also used water from the Dong Dien River for production without permission.

No deterrent

Experts say strict measures against river polluters like Hao Duong are a must as increasing pollution threatens human health and sustainable development.

Jake Brunner, program coordinator for the International Union for Conservation of Nature in Vietnam, said that it is clear that fines have failed as a deterrent.

"If the fines are paid at all, it is often cheaper to pay them and continue polluting than to install and operate pollution control equipment," Brunner told Vietweek.

"It is the license to continue operating that provides the strongest inventive to businesses to comply with environmental regulations," he said.

"Suspension or termination of persistently polluting businesses is the best policy for the government to pursue."

According to a report released last year by the Hanoi-based NGO International Center for Environmental Management (ICEM), the introduction of water pollution control technologies or changes in production processes imply capital investments which may be difficult to finance.

The report, titled Water Pollution Control Funds in Vietnam, pointed out five reasons that firms are reluctant to invest in a wastewater treatment plant, including an uncertain regulatory environment, limited enforcement of regulations, high costs, lack of knowledge of wastewater treatment technologies available and lack of experience in cleaner production processes.

Jeremy Carew-Reid, the ICEM director and co-author of the report, said wastewater is a very serious and growing problem in the Dong Nai River basin.

 "Unless urgent remedial action is taken, increasing pollution load, concentration and toxicity will undermine economic progress and lead to extreme public health and social problems, expanding environmental hazards and loss of amenity, and increasing shortages of potable water for a rapidly growing population," he told Vietweek.

The Dong Nai River supplies water to some 15 million people in southern Vietnam. But that has not stopped callous companies from dumping so much toxic sludge in the sick and dying river that scientists say it will soon be too poisonous to use.

The 437-kilometer river originates in Lam Dong Province's Lang Biang highlands and flows toward the East Sea through Dak Nong, Binh Phuoc, Dong Nai, Binh Duong, HCMC, Long An and Tien Giang provinces. The Saigon and Thi Vai rivers are among its tributaries.

Carew-Reid said his center found that a relatively few firms are responsible for most heavy pollution of the environment.

"The seriously polluting firms that can afford to pay must comply with a pollution control plan which reduces pollution levels to zero. Otherwise they should be heavily fined and/or closed down following three warnings," he said.

He said if the polluters cannot pay, or do not have the capacities required, but cannot be closed down for other important political and social reasons like local employment, then "special one-off funding subsidies are justified.

"The implications for society of continued pollution are too serious and criminal to allow for too much flexibility in the treatment of serious polluters."

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