Viet Steel Mill Owners Acknowledge Huge Fish Kill

A sampling of public reaction suggests that the Vietnamese are impressed but hardly exuberant over an apology and a promise by the Taiwanese owners of a huge new steel plant in central Vietnam to pay half a billion US dollars for losses to fisher family livelihoods and for damage by toxic discharges from the plant in early April.

Too many questions remain unanswered, bloggers and pundits said after a Hanoi press conference on June 30 where a ministerial task force celebrated an end to the nation’s worst-ever crisis of environmental management. How the questions are answered will shape the Hanoi regime's management of foreign investment projects and environmental policy in years ahead.

The nature and origins of a lethal cocktail of cyanide and phenol that devastated marine life along a 300 kilometer stretch of Vietnam's coast early in April were "under investigation" for nearly three months. The Taiwanese multinational's acknowledgment of responsibility was culturally appropriate but for many Vietnamese commentators, it came too late and amounted to too little.

From the beginning, Formosa Plastic's 10.5 billion US dollar steel plant, still in its start-up stage, was suspected as the source of the toxic spill, there being no other plausible explanation for the environmental catastrophe. As the extent of the Great Fish Kill became clear late in April, demonstrations erupted in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and other Vietnamese cities. Protesters alleged that the Vietnamese authorities were too cozy with big foreign investors and decried their failure to move promptly and decisively against 'Formosa.'

The manmade disaster tested the capacity of a government sworn into office only a month earlier, in March. Now the Taiwan steel company's capitulation seems to have vindicated Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc's strategy of thorough investigation and patient negotiation out of public view.

Even so, early comment chided the government for lack of transparency in its dealings with Formosa Plastics' Vietnamese subsidiary, Formosa Ha Tinh Steel (FHS). Vietnamese analysts have frequently implied that supervision of the Taiwanese-funded project has been lax and, in particular, that insufficient central government attention was paid to its environmental risks.

Reporters at the multi-minister press conference were given copies of a letter to Prime Minister Phuc from FHS that apologized for what it described as a failure to control the quality of wastewater releases during power cuts on several days in early April. The text was likely the result of lengthy bargaining. In the letter, FHS promises compensation for damages but does not mention a sum. However, government sources said categorically that FHS has promised US$ 500 million.

Reporters also learned that FHS blamed unnamed contractors for the disaster. That's a sensitive matter, because a Chinese firm was the project's prime contractor. Calls on the government to identify and blacklist the culprits will likely be ignored.

Questioned by reporters, Minister of Information Truong Minh Tuan did not rule out that criminal charges might yet be brought against FHS. "That's a matter for the courts," he added. Lawyers polled overnight by a prominent Vietnamese daily, Thanh Nien, stressed that the environmental protection law allows any individual or organization that can show it was harmed by a violation of the law to sue the perpetrator.

Prime Minister Phuc's chief aide, Cabinet Secretary Mai Tien Dung, said the "fish kill matter" is a lesson for all companies that they must respect Vietnamese laws, including environmental protection laws. Mr. Dung emphasized that from the beginning the Prime Minister and Vietnamese Communist Party leaders were determined to address the disaster scientifically, deliberately, objectively and in accordance with Vietnamese law.

To a reporter's question, Tuan, the information minister, volunteered that the regime's strategy had been discussed at many cabinet-level meetings. Top leaders had stressed the importance of maintaining public security and of dealing strictly with errors, no matter what organization committed them, he said.

Tuan then alluded to the regime's decision to restrict press inquiry and suppress public demonstrations after first seeming to tolerate both. Opinion in social media, Tuan added, had reacted against the slow pace of the investigation, and such impatience he called understandable in view of the national implications of the matter and its impact on fisher family livelihoods. However, "excessive reactions stimulated by forces opposed to Vietnam caused disturbances to public order. . . . We cannot tolerate manipulation of public frustration to attack our [ruling Communist] Party and the State."

Reacting to Tuan's warning, blogger superstar Doan Trang called the half-billion dollar compensation package not a victory, but rather "the price for which the Party and State sold out the people." After this "so-called success," Trang forecast, "anyone who dares question it or demands transparency will be labelled 'reactionary.'"

Formosa Plastics Group (FPG) can afford to pay big fines. The website of FPG's American affiliate says the group's world-wide revenues in (apparently) 2015 were $74 billion.

Will fishermen seek further compensation, acting perhaps through state-sponsored unions? There is precedent for that, a 2010 case coincidentally involving another Taiwan corporation, MSG manufacturer Vedan. Aided by lawyer volunteers, 3000 fish farmers sued Vedan for releasing untreated wastes into the Thi Vai River, near Saigon. Facing defeat, Vedan settled out of court for $10 million.

The fishing communities of four central coast provinces have been hit hard by the Great Fish Kill. If they sue FHS, public opinion will be squarely on their side.

Citing a study in an American environmental law journal, on July 1, Zing, a popular Vietnamese news and chat site, summarized FPG's substantial history of non-compliance with environmental regulations in the US, Cambodia and Taiwan. Meanwhile, popular blogger Manh Kim posted a summary of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico off New Orleans, underlining that British Petroleum (BP) ultimately paid fines totalling over US$ 23 billion to the US Government and four littoral states.

For blogger Pham Quynh Huong, the Great Fish Kill is but an early round in a long fight for a clean environment. If we the people don't defend our environment, she argued in a July 1 post, no one will do it for us. Huong lamented the vagueness of Vietnamese law and the relative weakness of the government vis-a-vis pollutors like FHS, calling it a bully that does not hesitate to corrupt local officials. In her view, the Taiwanese investor has gotten off lightly.

The Vietnamese learned long ago to manage natural disasters, Huong continued. The people and the government regularly work together to mitigate the impact of storms and floods and to clean up the mess they leave. Man-made environmental disasters are quite another matter. Vis-a-vis big foreign companies, says Huong, Vietnam's government is understaffed and short of funds. She is a recently retired official who knows whereof she speaks. She concludes that the Hanoi regime will not be able to force investors like FHS to behave unless it drops the cloak of secrecy and instead enlists the help of citizens. In Vietnam, that is still a radical idea.