A group of 20 men sneak into an airbase in the southern province of Dong Nai.
They climb up a tree, jump over a fence and start to catch fish from the lakes inside Bien Hoa Airbase.
After around seven hours, they leave with more than a hundred kilograms of fish. Then they drive their motorbikes for around an hour and stop on a sidewalk to sell the fish.
Their buyers never know that the fish have been caught illegally, from lakes heavily contaminated by extremely dangerous chemicals.
The airbase, which is around 30 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City, is one of the sites with the severest and longest lasting dioxin pollution in the world.
During the Vietnam War, the US stored a huge amount of toxic compounds including Agent Orange, Agent White, and Agent Blue there to use as defoliants and clear the forests to attack Vietnamese revolutionary forces.
Between 1969 and 1970, 2,500 liters of Agent White and 25,000 liters of Agent Orange were dumped into the environment, including lakes, according to official figures.
Locals who live near the area said strangers from other provinces have continued catching fish there for around three or four years despite notices warning that the lakes are polluted and eating anything from them will endanger one’s health.
Locals said they are highly aware of the danger, but people coming from other places just overlook the risks.
The fishers that Thanh Nien reporters followed last Sunday said they are migrants from the Mekong Delta’s Soc Trang Province. They work at factories and go to the lakes to catch fish during the weekend.
“No one ever stopped us,” one of them said.
Fish caught from dioxin-polluted lakes in Dong Nai are sold on the street on November 29, 2015. Photo: Tieu Thien
A local woman said sometimes there’s an official passing by and ordering everyone to leave. But once the official leaves, everyone will be back to business.
Dao Xuan Nam, a local official, said the airbase is managed by the military.
“The government has no right to check. We can only put up warning signs and tell people to be careful,” Nam said.
Dang Minh Duc, deputy director of the province’s environment department, also said that it is not the province’s responsibility.
A military officer said the lake area is being managed by a business and the military will require it to “tighten the management” to stop people from fishing.
Le Ke Son, director of a national project for cleaning wartime chemicals, said he has seen pets, fish and chicken in the area with deformities due to dioxin exposure.
Studies by the Ministry of Defense between 2000 to 2004 found the average dioxin concentration in the blood of people catching and those eating fish from the lakes to be 2,000 ppt (parts per trillion), compared to the safe limit of 10 ppt.
“Fish in the area is dangerously exposed,” Son said. “They must not be eaten.”