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Exclusive: Environment Minister on mass fish deaths

By Pham Hieu, Vo Van Thanh   June 30, 2016 | 05:33 am PT
Exclusive: Environment Minister on mass fish deaths
Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Tran Hong Ha. Photo by VnExpress/Vo Thanh
The government has announced today that Formosa Steel Plant is the prime cause of the mass fish deaths. In an exclusive interview with VnExpress, Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Tran Hong Ha, reveals the details of the three month investigation and lessons learnt for the future.

Following mass fish deaths, the Prime Minister has assigned you to lead the investigation into the its cause and devise the solution but you have been quiet about this. Why so?

I haven't spoken on this matter because I needed to focus on the investigation and solving the problem as a whole.

The last three months have been my 84 toughest days. I had to bear a heavy responsibility to answer the public's legitimate question: What caused the incident?

This is the first such serious incident to have occurred to me and the government. I came back to Vietnam from New York (U.S.) on April 25. On the afternoon of the following day, I was appointed secretary of the Party’s Civil Affairs Committee by the Central Organizing Committee, and [Environment] Minister by the Prime Minister. That coincided with the fish deaths.

I came to Ha Tinh on April 26 to inspect the waters where the fish died. The problem was very complicated and serious. Pressure from the demands of the people was intense. As Minister of Environment, I thought I should take responsibility for what had happened, though at the time I did not know what had caused this disaster.

After assuming responsibility, it became a greater burden. If I cannot find the cause and the solution, it would prove that I am not suited for the job.

At that time I was just two weeks into my job as Minister. 

The Prime Minister ordered the investigation into the mass fish deaths along the coasts of four central provinces to be meticulous and on a scientific basis. How did you carry out this order over the last three months?

I entered the investigation determined to examine all the industrial establishments in the region. There was no question of accusing anyone without evidence and legal grounds. At that time, three facilities emerged: Formosa Ha Tinh Steel, Vung Ang Thermal Power Plant and Ha Tinh Industrial Complex.

When I got to work, I quickly realized it was a complicated issue, but no matter how difficult it was, we must resolve it in a way that our people can trust. We formed an interministerial inspection team with up to 70 people, among whom were top experts on environment, metallurgy and waste treatment.

We didn’t simply conduct inspections. We looked at what had already happened prior to the incident. We had to put the pieces together to understand how it happened and used laboratories to remodel the problem. We also used waste and energy audits. The Ministry of Science and Technology gathered 100 scientists to find the cause of the incident.

To support that mission and to gain public trust, we also invited scientists from Germany, France, the U.S., Japan and Israel. The foreign scientists, after a survey at Formosa Ha Tinh, said the project was on a test-run at that time and although it was unlikely it would pollute the environment in normal conditions, there was a high possibility that something else had occurred.

The government has just announced that operations at Formosa Ha Tinh Steel were the cause of the fish deaths. During the evidence gathering process, what were the key factors that made the government come to that conclusion?

Firstly, test results showed that over 50 percent of the dead fish samples contained phenol and cyanide. Secondly, Formosa Ha Tinh Steel is the only steel plant in the region to release these chemical substances.

Formosa Ha Tinh Steel (FHS) cannot deny it because we have pointed out 53 violations that they have committed including the design errors from construction to operation. The inspection results show that FHS experienced an electrical fire during a test run. From April 1 to April 5, electricity consumption at the plant was only 15 percent of its normal. The electrical incident is related to the microbial activation process in the wastewater treatment area. This is the stage that treats phenol.

The incident happened at FHS, so what has led to the fish deaths in other provinces?

Scientifically speaking, in normal conditions, all the waste discharged by the steel plant into the sea would only affect the waters of Ha Tinh for a few days. So what could have caused the pollution to follow ocean currents and affect the four provinces? Scientists explained that the waste release by FHS has mixed together to form a complex compound. This compound is heavier than sea water and has sunk to the bottom of the sea while sucking toxic substances, including phenol and cyanide, into it. Then the poison followed the ocean currents. That triggered chemical reactions and caused the death of fish living near the sea bed. This discovery is the key to the problem.

Before this “key” discovery was made, why was the phenomenon known as “red tide” or blooming algae blamed for the incident?

A “red tide” has not been ruled out by 100 scientists as one of the causes. Japanese experts analyzed the water samples taken at Vung Ang (Ha Tinh) which revealed huge doses of toxins from the algae, 300 percent more than normal. In scientific studies, we still have to record whatever cause we find, even if it is only one case in a million.

The identification of the two main causes, namely the impact of chemical toxins emitted from human activities and by the “red tide” phenomenon, came from scientific research, not from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.

At the end of April, if we concluded that the reason for the fish deaths was due to human activities and FHS with no evidence, then we would have had to anticipate a law suit and compensation. Only now, after three months, have scientists identified the main and secondary causes.

The "red tide" was only an isolated case. The main cause of the fish deaths were phenol and cyanide. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment can now conclude, with objective and persuasive evidence, that the phenol and cyanide came from the FHS.

The possible causes mentioned at the end of April were a hypothesis, which is normal in science. There was no intention to cover anything up.

The government did not cover up the case; it worked on a scientific basis following domestic and international regulations.

Are you satisfied with the results of the negotiations with FHS? How has FHS taken responsibility for the compensation ?

Formosa Ha Tinh has admitted responsibility and agreed to pay $500 million in compensation to help people switch careers, and to handle the pollution and restoration of the ecosystem. They have also promised to fix the waste treatment system and upgrade their technology.

Formosa also said it will install marine monitoring systems in the four central provinces to give the public access to information and ensure transparency. I think both sides have reached a common goal.

If Formosa Ha Tinh Steel complies with Vietnam’s law and fully implements all these solutions, they will be able to control the situation so that no further incidents occur. A backup solution was also proposed involving biological reservoirs, so if the waste treatment system fails, the waste will not escape.

The most important thing here is to handle the environmental issues to ensure the legitimate interests of citizens and give enterprises a chance to fix their problems and continue their development. These solutions ensure that the incident will not affect our investment environment, and have received widespread support from international authorities, including Taipei.

What is the basis behind the $500 million compensation figure?

It was based on several factors, including the direct damage to the people, damage to the environment and damage to tourism. There wasn't any damage to the seagrass and mangrove ecosystems. However, about 400 hectares of coral have been affected.

That figure has largely met our purpose and the requirements we set. Of course, the biggest issue here is not compensation, but how the Vietnamese marine environment is protected in the future. In addition to this compensation, FHS will also make another huge investment to improve their production systems and technological renovation.

Is the sea as safe as it was before the incident? 

The sea water at shore, near-shore and the beaches are being regularly monitored by environmental assessment systems to keep the public informed. Comparing the results with the national standards for seawater quality, the sea water quality at the beaches in the four provinces (Ha Tinh, Quang Binh, Quang Tri, Thua Thien - Hue) are within the permitted limits.

Authorities are testing to see whether the sediment on the sea bed still contains residual toxins. We will announce the results of the survey and the assessment of pollution and damage levels. This issue needs further evaluation. Oceanographers have already taken sediment samples from the residue of the compounds for analysis. We expect to have the results of the samples by July 15 so we can give early notice.

Scientists are barely seeing any complex compounds or detecting moving streams of the compounds now. 

What will Vietnam do to ensure that similar incidents do not occur again?

Policies to attract investment must give us choices. We must have criteria to choose industrial sectors that are environmentally friendly and the technological levels in those industries. At the same time, Vietnam must complete its legal system, from investment laws to environment laws, to ensure that environmental issues are always taken seriously and solved effectively.

Regarding environmental regulations, for various reasons, we have prioritized some sectors that are also pollutants. For example, environmental standards for the metallurgical industry have been set quite low because firms simply wouldn't be able to hit the standards if we set them high. That is in the past. Now we have the opposite view. Those pollutants must be stopped.

We must also invest in technical equipment for automatic monitoring in our sea and rivers.

As head of the environmental sector, if you receive a proposal for an industrial project with the same scale and investment as FHS, with investment in similar area, and given the current regulations and standards, what advice do you have for that locality?

I think it is important to assess the level of technology. For example, a coke manufacturing plant using wet or dry technology may make a difference.

You said policies to attract investment must allow us to be selective, so should investment in areas such as steel like the Formosa project no longer be considered priorities?

Exactly. Of course we must understand that this is the 21st century, so there shouldn’t be trade-offs between the environment and steel industry or any other industry. The problem is the level of technology and investment costs. With the current level of development, humankind has the technology to solve environmental problems. The only problem is the investment cost.

Related news:

Formosa apologizes for mass fish deaths, pledges compensation and changes

Formosa in Vietnam: From billion-dollar steel factory to mass fish killer

[Infographics] Formosa behind mass fish deaths in central coast of Vietnam

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