Vietnam: Formosa's toxic disaster -- are fish safe to eat now in central Vietnam?

VnExpress 22 Aug 16;

A long-awaited government report fails to answer the most important question.

The Vietnamese government has remained non-committal about whether it is now safe to catch and eat fish along the country's central coast that bore the brunt of the toxic disaster caused by the Vietnam unit of Taiwanese conglomerate Formosa Plastics Group last April.

Instead the authorities concerned have just said broadly that the coast is safe for swimming and aquaculture.

The government has completed its assessment of the environmental damage caused by Formosa Ha Tinh Steel along a 200 kilometer stretch of the country's central coastline.

It called a press conference on Monday, chaired by Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Tran Hong Ha and attended by foreign and local scientists and leaders of affected provinces, to announce the results of the investigation into what Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc described as “the worst environment disaster the country has faced”.

On June 30, Vietnam made an official announcement that Formosa Ha Tinh Steel was to blame for discharging toxins into the ocean in the central province of Ha Tinh, home to Formosa's $10.6 billion plant.

It confirmed that the chemical spill, containing harmful chemicals such as phenol, cyanide and iron hydroxide, was responsible for killing marine life and poisoning fish in the central provinces of Ha Tinh, Quang Binh, Quang Tri and Thua Thien – Hue.

However, it remains unclear whether the quality of water is safe to fish in within 20 nautical miles of the coast.

At the conference, Mai Trong Nhuan, who headed the study on the disaster commissioned by the environment ministry, presented an extensive report on how the marine environment in the disaster zone has recovered from the toxic pollution.

Firstly, according to the report, marine life, including sea water and sea-bed sediment, is generally within Vietnamese safety standards for aquaculture farming, fishing, and tourism activities.

Secondly, the toxic chemicals the steel factory dumped into the sea, including cyanide, phenol and iron hydroxide, have shown signs of diluting.

Thirdly, the marine ecosystem, coral reefs, sea grass and other marine resources, which were seriously damaged in terms of scale and species, has started to make a recovery.

In addition, levels of chemical residue found in seafood caught along the coastline of the four affected provinces have gradually fallen, according to the Health Ministry.

Harmful chemicals in the sea water seem to have dissipated, but some pollutants such as phenol remain at relatively high concentrations, said Trinh Van Tuyen, the director of the Institute of Environment Technology.

But it remains unclear whether the fish in the area are now safe to eat. Friedhelm Schroeder, a German scientist hired to study the consequences of the toxic disaster, said at the conference that fishermen should not go back to work yet. He said the Health Ministry needs to keep a close eye on the situation and give concrete advice about the safety of the fish there.

Environment authorities have set up tracking stations to monitor discharges of harmful waste into the sea.

In early April, local people in Ha Tinh Province, about 400 kilometers south of Hanoi, began noticing an abnormally high number of dead fish washing up on shore. A month later, roughly 100 tons of dead fish had been collected along a 200 kilometer stretch of coastline.

Three months after the fish deaths, the government officially blamed Formosa for the disaster.

Vietnam's government said toxic industrial waste from the Taiwanese-owned steel plant was responsible for the mass fish deaths that have ravaged local fisheries, disrupted people’s lives and hit tourism in the area, destroying the livelihoods of thousands of people in the region.

Formosa took responsibility and promised to pay VND11.5 trillion or $500 million in compensation to treat the pollution and mitigate the consequences.

Vietnamese authorities said the compensation will go towards helping local fishermen in the area find new jobs.

The toxic pollution caused by Formosa has hit at least 200,000 people where it hurts the most: their pockets, the government said last month.

In a report sent to the National Assembly, Vietnam's legislature, the government said that around 41,000 fishermen and over 176,000 people dependent on them have been affected by the incident.

Authorities estimate that seafood catches have fallen 1,600 tons per month, according to the report. 140 tons of fish, 67 tons of oysters and 16 tons of shrimp died as a result of the disaster, it said.


Questions over water safety in central Vietnam
Vietnam Net 23 Aug 16;

While the northern-central coastal region has been described as now being safe for tourism activities since the Formosa environmental disaster, further research will be necessary before seafood from the area are safe, Tran Hong Ha, minister of Natural Resources and Environment said at a press meeting on Monday.

The meeting announced the results of the investigations on the environmental situation in the four central coastal provinces which have been affected by the waste water discharge of the Hung Nghiep Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Company.

"Although the reports have not met the expectations from the public, they have also shown us positive signs in the quality of the seawater," Ha told the meeting, which was attended by foreign and local scientists and leaders of affected provinces.

At the conference, Mai Trong Nhuan, who headed the study on the disaster carried out by the ministry, presented an extensive report on how the marine environment in the disaster zone has recovered from the toxic pollution.

The report said that marine life, including sea water and sea-bed sediment, was generally within Vietnamese safety standards for aquaculture farming, fishing, and tourism activities.

"The toxic chemicals the steel factory dumped into the sea, including cyanide, phenol and iron hydroxide, have shown signs of diluting," the report said. "The marine ecosystem, coral reefs, sea grass and other marine resources, which were seriously damaged in terms of scale and species, has started to make a recovery."

A representative from the Health Ministry said that levels of chemical residue found in seafood caught along the coastline of the four affected provinces have gradually fallen.

Harmful chemicals in the sea water seem to have dissipated, but some pollutants such as phenol remain at relatively high concentrations, said Trinh Van Tuyen, the director of the Institute of Environment Technology.

But it remains unclear whether the fish in the area are now safe to eat.

Many fishing boats are still lying idle in the four central coastal provinces.

Friedhelm Schroeder, a German scientist hired to study the consequences of the toxic disaster, said at the conference that fishermen should not return to work yet.

"The Ministry of Health needs to keep a close eye on the situation and give concrete advice about the safety of the fish there," he said.

Environment minister swims at Quang Tri beach

Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, Tran Hong Ha, representatives of agencies and leaders of the central Quang Tri Province yesterday went swimming at the province's Cua Viet Resort.

The minister decided to go for a swim after attending the meeting to announce the results of the investigations into the environment in the four central coastal provinces following the Formosa disaster.

"Scientists have announced that sea in the four central coasts are now safe for swimming, why not go for a swim?" Ha said

Ha was joined by his deputy Vo Tuan Nhan, Quang Tri Province Party Secretary, Nguyen Van Hung, and some of the province's vice chairmen.

At the meeting yesterday, Ha said that although the reports have not met public expectations, they have also shown positive changes in terms of the quality of the seawater.

A report by the ministry based on analysis of 1,080 seawater samples in the area taken in May, 331 samples in June and 68 samples in August, showed that marine life, including sea water and seabed sediment, was generally within Vietnamese safety standards for aquaculture farming, fishing, and tourism activities.

Authorities shirk responsibilities over mass fish deaths

Officials in Ha Tinh Province are trying to avoid punishments after the mass fish deaths in coastal provinces with only one official receiving a reprimand.

Ha Tinh People's Committee has asked the Department of Natural Resources and Environment, environmental police and the management board of provincial economic zones along with the Department of Industry and Trade to review and submit the results about the incident by August 15.

However, only the Department of Natural Resources and Environment, which must take the most responsibility, carried out a review of their employees and only Dang Ba Luc, head of the Environmental Protection Agency was reprimanded.

Even though many people suggest that Vo Ta Dinh, the department's director, must be the first to be blamed, he said he would “learn from the experience”.

Pham Quang De, inspector at the provincial Department of Internal Affairs said, "I said that Dinh should be at least reprimanded. But he said his two vice directors hadn't taken responsibility so he must think about it first. This was a serious disaster and the leaders only promised to learn from experiences is just wrong and a reprimand is too light. We have demanded them to review their responsibilities again."

After receiving all reports about individual responsibilities, the Department of Internal Affairs will report to the provincial people's committee and decide on the punishments.

"Depending on positions and regulations, we'll see if the suggested punishments are good enough and may demand they rethink their punishments," De said.

On June 30, the Hung Nghiep Formosa Ha Tinh Limited Company admitted responsibility for the mass fish deaths in four central coastal provinces. The government also asked local authorities to review individual responsibilities but the process has been slow.

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