A Vietnamese government agency is proposing an end to a heightened level of oversight of a Taiwanese-owned steel plant responsible for the country’s worst-ever environmental disaster more than five years ago, despite ongoing concerns among local residents.
The April 2016 release of toxic chemicals, including cyanide, polluted the coastline of four provinces over a total area of about 200 kilometers (124 miles), killing an estimated 115 tons of fish and harming the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, including fishermen and tourism industry workers.
Taiwan-owned Formosa Plastics Group acknowledged the spill came from its massive steel plant located at a deep-water port in Ha Tinh province’s Ky Anh district. The company offered U.S. $500 million in compensation after a Vietnamese government investigation determined that incident caused considerable environmental damage.
Though the funds were meant to cover the cleanup and to support people along the coasts whose livelihoods were destroyed, critics said the amount has not been adequate, and many of those affected have sought additional compensation through Taiwanese courts.
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment last week proposed Prime Minister Phạm Minh Chính stop a special supervision mechanism for the Hung Nghiep Formosa Ha Tinh steel factory and switch to a normal monitoring arrangement.
The ministry said it had determined that Formosa had addressed and repaired the detrimental impacts of the spill.
Environmental experts and local residents are objecting to the plan, fearing additional environmental damage by the plant if the current level of oversight is diminished.
A woman living near the plant told RFA that she does not understand the ministry’s recommendations, especially because fish and other marine life from the affected areas continue to show effects from the disaster.
“After 2016 and until now, dead fish sometimes have washed ashore, especially when the waste is discharged, and the amount of live fish is less than before,” said the woman who declined to be named for security reasons. “It occurs a few times every years.”
The woman said her family earned a decent income from fishing, but their lives were turned upside down after the environmental disaster.
The woman, who said she served a jail sentence demonstrating against Formosa following the spill, said almost half of the villagers in the area where she lives have developed health ailments from inhaling smoke and foul-smelling gas emitted by the plant.
But most residents do not dare to discuss the consequences for fear of being sent to jail, she said. Local authorities imprisoned many of the villagers who protested the factory after the spill.
RFA attempted to contact the leaders of Ky Anh district and Ha Tinh province for comment, but officials there who answered the phone abruptly hung up.
A former lecturer in public policy at the National Economics University in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi said that the special monitoring should continue.
“Formosa has made a precedent of serious violations, causing a terrible environmental disaster that local people have to suffer for hundreds of years,” said the former academic, who declined to be named for fear of retribution. “After the disaster, Formosa Ha Tinh even blatantly challenged the public with the declaration of ‘whichever to be chosen: steel or fish.’
“Due to the impact of the sea disaster, many fishermen in Ky Anh have had to quit their jobs, and many have gone to other provinces and abroad to look for jobs,” he said. “The proposal to stop the special monitoring mechanism for Formosa Ha Tinh is a way to encourage it to commit more violations.”
Nguyen Van Khai, an environmentalist and physicist, questioned why the government would want to stop the current monitoring system.
“Why stop? Please announce publicly the monitoring results! Do invite people to come there and do measurement work publicly,” he said. “How is the air quality?”
Khai, who has led successful industrial waste treatment projects, volunteered to measure air quality from gas and water discharged into the environment from the Formosa plant if called upon.
Translated by RFA Vietnamese. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.