A Taiwanese steel company on Monday refused to take responsibility for an environmental disaster in central Vietnam that has resulted in mass fish deaths and raised questions about the country's capacities to detect and handle large scale pollution.
Chou Chun Fan, chief of the Hung Nghiep Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Company (FHS)’s representative office in Hanoi, even made shocking statements after fielding questions from reporters.
The reporters asked him if Formosa had installed a sewage pipe under the sea to discharge wastewater directly into the sea near the Vung Ang Economic Zone in Ha Tinh Province, where a huge number of fish have died recently.
Chou said: “I admit that the discharge of wastewater will affect the environment to some extent, and it is obvious that the sea will have less fish.
“But before we built the plant, we had got the permission from the Vietnamese government.
“To be honest, we must lose some to win some. You want the fish, or the steel plant? You have to choose.
“If you want both, I will tell you that you can’t, even if you are the prime minister.”
Over the last two weeks a large number of fish have washed ashore in Ha Tinh and several neighboring provinces like Quang Binh, Quang Tri and Thua Thien-Hue, apparently killed by industrial effluents.
Suspicion has centered on Formosa, a major firm in the Vung Ang Economic Zone. The company admitted that it has a large sewage pipe going straight into the sea, but claimed repeatedly that the discharged wastewater has been treated.
On Monday, the agriculture ministry said initial tests showed the fish had not died from diseases. The substance killing them could be biological, chemical or toxic substances like cyanide. Further tests are being conducted.
It also said no more unusual fish deaths were reported on Monday.
The Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology (VAST) also denied claims that some earthquakes that hit Japan’s Kumamoto City on April 14 and 16 had affected the Vietnamese coast, causing the fish deaths.
Analysis results of images taken by VNRED Sat-1 satellite and other satellites also showed no major oil spills in the affected area over the last month, it said.
Seismic stations located in Nghe An, Quang Binh and Thua Thien-Hue provinces managed by VAST did not record any earthquake that registers more than 5.0 on the Richter scale offshore the central coast.
It means the possibility that fish deaths were caused by thermal shock was also ruled out, according to VAST.
'Formosa and authorities ignored us'
Residents in Ha Tinh Province’s Ky Anh District, where the Formosa plant is based in, told Thanh Nien they were not consulted when Formosa installed the sewage pipe as well as during the process of environmental impact assessment.
Meanwhile, Formosa said it had collected the opinions of local people affected by the project and local authorities before submitting the environmental impact report.
Chu Van Thanh, a 46-year-old resident, said his family and other households were relocated for the construction in 2011. Many of them now live near the project, but they were never informed of any environmental impacts.
Chou Chun Fan (R), chief of the FHS's rep office in Hanoi, at a meeting with Thanh Nien newspaper on April 25, 2016. Photo: Nguyen Dung
Nguyen Van Hau, 55, said he was shocked to know that Formosa has a secret sewage pipe under the sea near where he lived.
“If they asked for our opinions, we would have said no. Formosa and authorities ignored us,” he said.
Around 1,000 hectares of land were claimed and 1,500 households were relocated for the Formosa plant project.
On April 4, a Ha Tinh fisherman reported to local authorities that he saw a large sewage pipe discharging wastewater into the sea in Vung Ang. The pipe was lying around 13 meters under the surface and around 1.5 kilometers from the Vung Ang Economic Zone, he said.
A spokesperson from Formosa later admitted that the pipe belongs to the company, and that it discharges 12,000 liters of wastewater a day through the pipe. He said the wastewater had already been treated before being discharged.
On Monday, Hoang Dat Thuyen, director of Formosa’s environment safety department, admitted that the company had for several years imported a large amount of chemicals to clean the pipe, but the diluted and treated substances were then discharged into the sea without the Vietnamese authorities’ permission.
“We did not see any regulation saying that we must seek authorities’ permission when cleaning the pipe,” he said.
He said Formosa had invested up to US$45 million to build the wastewater treatment system.
This picture taken on December 4, 2015 shows the main part of Taiwanese conglomerate Formosa's steel mill in Ky Anh District, in the central coastal province of Ha Tinh. Photo: AFP/HOANG DINH NAM