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

By VnExpress   August 22, 2016 | 11:30 am GMT+7
Formosa's toxic disaster: are fish safe to eat now in central Vietnam?
A villager shows dead fish he collected on a beach in Phu Loc District, in the central province of Thua Thien Hue in April. Photo by AFP

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.

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Officials at the press conference on Monday. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Hung

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.

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