Vietnamese officials say 7,000 liters of toxic oil sat in a leaky electrical transformer on the edge of Ha Long Bay for seven years.
The story began when the Cuu Long Vinashin Investment JSC imported three old transformers from South Korea in November 2007.
Oil in one of the transformers was found to contain illegal PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl) a chemical group associated with endocrine disruption and neurotoxicity.
The organic chemical is described as a dangerous carcinogenic under Vietnamese regulations.
In July 2008, provincial inspectors in Quang Ninh fined Cuu Long for environmental protection violations.
The officials ordered the company to return the transformers, which were intended for use in the construction of a thermal power plant, but the exporter refused to take them back.
Little was done about the oil, which remained in the rusting transformer at Cai Lan Port, just outside the UNESCO world heritage site.
Dang Huy Hau, vice chairman of Quang Ninh Province, visited the site on Tuesday and ordered the Quang Ninh Port Company to set up a fence to make sure the oil doesn't spill into the bay.
He may be too late.
Signs of spillage
The transformer remained covered in canvas, until last May when the company cooperated with local environmental and customs officials to pump out the oil and store it in 35 barrels packed into two shipping containers.
Nguyen Danh Son, a customs supervisor at Cai Lan Port, said the transfer occurred after a mixture of oil and rainwater spilled out of the transformer and onto the floor of the port.
“There was a heavy spill several months ago, leaving patches of oil on the concrete and we had to inform the importer,” Son told Tien Phong in a story published on August 8.
Son said the huge amount of oil could cause irrevocable damage if it spills out into the environment.
Nguyen Cong Thai, deputy head of the Ha Long Bay Management Board, framed the scenario simply: “Ha Long Bay would die.”
Thai isn't confident in the safety of the oil because it was transferred into the containers without supervision from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.
The team made sure that the containers were strong, tightly-sealed and equipped with a fire and explosion alert systems, he said.
Thai worries about other risks, particularly during the ongoing monsoon season.
“What if lighting strikes the containers?” Son asked.
He said Quang Ninh's environmental officials have asked the Cuu Long Company and the environmental ministry to help move the oil to a safer place but they have yet to receive a response.
There’s only one unit in the whole country that has the technology to destroy PCB but it is in the southern province of Kien Giang, Son said, without offering its name.
Transporting the oil over a distance of more than 2,000km would prove impossible, he said.
One can be exposed to PCBs by digesting, inhaling or touching them. Babies can be exposed to breast milk of exposed women.
Mass poisonings of thousands of people were reported in Japan in 1968 and Taiwan in 1979.
Vietnam does not produce PCBs, but imported between 27-30 tons between 1960 and 1990 for use in the manufacturing of electrical devices. The government is set to limit the use by 2020 and eliminate the chemical from the country in 2028.