Tragedy strikes in Vietnam as chemical accident ruins lives

Photo: Claire Backhouse/CC BY-ND 2.0

By Dung Phan

Tonnes of fish were discovered on beaches along Vietnam’s central coastal provinces in early April. As the worst environmental disaster in the country’s recent history it has caused rare public outrage. Other types of seafood, such as shrimps, clams and squids also died en masse.

After a two-month investigation, Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics Corp. took full responsibility for a toxic discharge which led to the tragedy. The $10.6 billion Formosa Steel Plant agreed to pay $500 million in compensation and pledged not to repeat violations. “We deeply hope the Vietnamese people can forgive us,” said the company’s chairman, Chen Yuan Cheng.

Among the debate over compensation the life of many fishermen and locals, whose livelihoods rely on seafood, is still not getting better. “Never before have been there so many fishing boats left unused for such a long time,” said Hoang Minh Hue, head of Ky Phu Commune’s Veterans Association.

The compensation will never be enough”

Ha Tinh Province – the country’s most vulnerable and poorest area, is an economic zone and home to many industrial plants, including the steel plant run by the Taiwanese Formosa.

Since the disaster, the majority of residents in affected communities now have no choice but to retire their fishing boats. Nguyen Chan Ly, head of Ba Dong Hamlet said, “For three months, the whole hamlet has no income and mainly depends on allowances, charities and loans to live.”

Ly added that most of the fishermen did not know how to do other jobs and it is not easy for them to switch. “We only want the sea to be clean and healthy again so we can sail again. The compensation will never be enough,” said Pham Van Trung, a local fisherman in Ky Anh District.

Public health is also a major concern to these residents. Many reported that the drilled well water that they have been using for daily activities now carries a layer of scum. Despite a tight budget, most of them have tried to save $224 to buy a water purifier.

Initial inquiries by the firm and the government found no link between the dead fish and the plant. However, the two-month investigation has now uncovered that the discharged toxins were phenol, cyanide and ferrous hydroxide. All of these are poisonous substances and may cause harmful effects to the nerves and heart.

Le Van Ngay, a diver died after diving in the water near the Formosa project due to breathing problems. Five others have been diagnosed with similar symptoms.

This story did not come as a surprise to residents of Taiwan. In 2010, an engineer presented evidence of increasing cancer rates in five rural townships near a Formosa Plastic Group (FPG) in Mailiao.

Taiwanese senior lawmaker Su Chih-feng, showed her concern over the Vietnamese disaster, saying, “For me, the Formosa steel plant is a giant monster.” She added that Yunlin Country, where FPG’s sixth naphtha cracker in Taiwan was located, was so poor that lots of companies wanted to make a long-term investment. However, most of them ended up causing detrimental effects on public health and the environment.

Water inequality

Perhaps we should stop and ask: How could be this plant be allowed to be built in the first place when there were numerous scandals connected to the company? How could this plant have been allowed to contaminate the sea for so long? Would this have been allowed near big cities, such as Da Nang City or Hai Phong City?

This is the kind of scenario that many activists call “environmental injustice,” in which low-income communities are easily targeted and disproportionately exposed to toxic and hazardous materials and waste facilities.

Among the injustices perpetrated on poor populations, this may de facto be the least humane: the threat of poisoning the water they drink.

But the people in Ky Anh, a rural district which makes up 0.08% of the area in Vietnam, aren’t alone. There are a lot more out there — overwhelmingly low-income communities where pollution and toxic chemicals add to families’ burdens.

In 2008 Taiwanese MSG maker Vedan had been caught discharging huge amounts of untreated waste-water into the Thi Vai River in Dong Nai Province, again causing mass fish deaths.

Le Thi Thanh Thuy, a resident living a kilometre from the Vedan plant, told pregnant women living along the Thi Vai River not to drink the water. “They are so poor; they don’t have enough money to buy rice. So how can they buy water?” said Thuy.

The question of environmental injustice comes down to the questions: who is feeling the severe impacts of a modern industrial society, yet who makes the profits?

Many affluent Vietnamese think of sending their kids abroad for a better environment. Some will only buy imported fish and seafood. The low-income communities, however, seem not to have many choices. Most of them do not even know how they will manage their life in the next few days.