Huge Fish Kill Tests Vietnam’s New Regime

The story broke in Vietnam's national press on April 20: shoals of dead fish were washing up on the beaches all along a 200 kilometer stretch of the central Vietnamese coast, as far south as Hue.

Coastal fishermen and local staff of Vietnam's Fisheries Agency blamed a discharge of chemicals in the vicinity of the Vung Ang Industrial Zone on about April 6. They told reporters that a toxic tide then worked its way south along the coast of four provinces, killing farmed fish as well as free swimming species.

Beyond the damage, which is shaping up as a classic conflict between industrialization and the environment, the episode is probably part one of a developing test of the new Vietnamese regime's political acumen.

Vung Ang is in Ha Tinh province near its southern border, 430 km south of Vietnam's capital, Hanoi. A Taiwanese conglomerate, Formosa Plastics, is developing a steel mill, power plant and port complex there on a 3,000 hectare plot. Phase I of the US$10.5 billion Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Company (FHS) project is nearing completion. It is designed to produce 7 million tonnes of crude steel annually. The first blast furnace went into operation in December.

An April 24 post on the website of Vietnam's Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MONRE) reported that teams were being deployed to investigate the extraordinary fish kill. Scientists at the Fisheries Agency, a unit of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD), promised a definitive diagnosis within 10 days.

Urgent investigation needed

On April 25, central government officials headed by Deputy Prime Minister Trinh Dinh Dung arrived in Ha Tinh to ínspect the losses suffered by local fishing families. Ha Tinh leaders urged that the government consider support payments to fishermen idled by the great fish die-off. The Deputy PM assured local officials that the central government had locked in on the fish kills. Investigation would proceed urgently, he said. If investigation showed that any organization or company was culpable, it would be prosecuted severely. Meanwhile, the DPM wanted full reports from the affected provinces.

In Hanoi, a senior MARD official told reporters that deputy minister Vu Van Tam had reviewed reports and concluded that the mammoth fish kill was caused by 'powerful biological or chemical toxin.'

At MONRE's Environment Bureau, reporters learned that FHS had cleaned its wastewater discharge pipe using toxic chemicals without informing Vietnamese authorities. The mouth of the 120 cm diameter pipe is a kilometer offshore. "The drainage system is legal," said vice minister Vo Tuan Nhan. "The problem is what and for how long FHS discharged into the sea."

Bearded by reporters at his office in Hanoi, an FHS liaison officer, Chu Xuan Pham, talked about trade-offs. You can't build a steel mill, Chu said in excellent Vietnamese that was recorded on videotape, without there being some impact on marine life nearby. Of course, FHS made a great effort to comply with the government's regulations. Still, if you want a steel mill or you want seafood, you have to choose. Not even the prime minister can have both.

By April 26, the story was morphing into a firestorm of finger-pointing and criticism. Comment on Chu's astonishing candor filled up Facebook, illustrated with photos of posters holding up signs labeled Tôi chọn cá (I choose fish).

FHS says it wasn’t us

Top executives of FHS convened a press conference to underline that Chu was not authorized to speak for the company and would be disciplined. Chu said he was sorry he had misled people. FHS Deputy Director General Truong Phuc Ninh expressed hope that the government's investigation of the fish kill would bring speedy results. As for allegations that waste from the mill was not properly treated and had killed fish in four provinces, that was impossible. "Formosa has invested US$45 million into liquid waste management alone, and all the water we discharge meets Vietnamese standards."

A top government scientist criticized the "very slow reaction" of local authorities to the crisis, adding that the central government response was little better. And indeed, there was an apparent lack of coordination at the top. Summoned to a press conference at MONRE on April 27, more than 100 reporters waited and waited until told it was postponed. When, at 9 pm, Minister Vu Tuan Nhan at last met the press, it was only to make a statement: the ministry had not yet seen a connection between the activities of Formosa, or other companies in the Vung Anh industrial zone, and the situation of fish dying en masse. No, the minister would take no questions.

With no resolution in sight, speculation took center stage in the national dialogue. Someone unearthed a photograph of a smiling Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Thong touring the FHS project, coincidentally only a few days before the fish kill became a public sensation. Reporters and bloggers raked over Formosa Plastics' history in Vietnam. They recalled how, during Vietnam's confrontation two years earlier with Chinese vessels protecting an oil drilling rig that Beijing had ordered into Vietnamese waters, construction workers at the project had rioted against allegedly harsh supervision by Chinese foremen. Digging deeper, some recalled the long argument between the Ha Tinh province authorities and central government ministries over liberal terms the former had promised the Taiwanese company.

Huge industrial development

According to the editor of the prominent blog Anh Ba Sam, Formosa Plastics was granted a 70-year lease on 3300 hectares for factories, power plant and port facilities, at an annual rental of about US$1,400 per square kilometer. In March 2015, Vietnamese media reported that overriding concerns raised by government auditors, former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung had confirmed that the government would uphold the terms agreed between Formosa Plastics and the Ha Tinh province authorities.

The Great Fish Kill comes at an awkward time. Vietnam is in the midst of regime change. The new government in Hanoi is likely to be kept on a tight leash, closely supervised by the parallel Communist party secretariat. This reverses a decade long trend. Nguyen Tan Dung's successor as Prime Minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, was sworn in only on April 7 and is still forming his cabinet.

Vietnam's official news agency reported late on April 25 that Phuc, after hearing DPM Trinh Dinh Dung's account of the situation in Ha Tinh, ordered expedited assistance to central coast fisher families and instructed ministries to clarify quickly and conclusively what killed so many millions of fish.

Whatever the facts, it's a hard call for Phuc. Suppose that after investigation, the evidence points to culpability on the part of the Taiwan corporation. Whether the spill was intentional or not, Phuc's only rational course will be to come down hard, to set an example to other foreign investors and preserve his own credibility vis-à-vis the Vietnamese public. Suppose, however, FHS culpability cannot be proven. In that case, it will not be at all easy to persuade the public that the government has done its best.

This affair recalls a controversy that centered on another big Taiwanese company several years ago. Vedan is the world's No.1 producer of the food flavor enhancer MSG, and its biggest factory is in Bien Hoa province, just east of Ho Chi Minh City. In 2008, Vietnam's environmental police discovered that for 15 years, Vedan had been deliberately circumventing its factory waste processing system to discharge wastes directly into the Thi Vai river.

Some months later, Vedan paid roughly US$7.5 million in fines to the government. There was nothing in the settlement with the government, however, for some 3,000 fishing families who had been victimized by Vedan's criminal behavior. Remarkably, this sparked a grass roots campaign by local bar associations, consumers' unions and, belatedly, the farmers' union to force Vedan to pay compensation. That happened at last. In August 2010, facing almost sure defeat in court, Vedan capitulated and agreed to compensate the fisher families approximately US$10 million altogether.

In a political sense, the precedent is clear, and the Great Fish Kill incident far from over.

David Brown is a retired US diplomat living in the US and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel