Is Rang Dong fire vicinity really safe now?

By Gia Hien   September 16, 2019 | 07:12 pm PT
Conflicting information about the aftermath of the recent Hanoi warehouse fire is causing confusion and uncertainty among the public, especially after authorities’ tardy response.
Gia Hien

Gia Hien

"Is it safe?" a friend asked me. His child studies at a school only a kilometer away from the Rang Dong warehouse, which burned down in the fire last month.

"How can we know it’s safe? How can we know exactly how much toxin was released into the air, how far they spread, or even what exactly are those toxins?" I replied.

My friend, one of the most knowledgeable people I know, could only sigh before taking his kid to school. Like tens of thousands of residents living near the fire site, he didn't have much choice in the matter.

In 2016 the public were riled by one of the worst environmental disasters in Vietnam caused by the Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corporation. The Taiwanese firm released pollutants into the sea that affected several coastal areas, including Ha Tinh, Quang Binh, Quang Tri and Thua Thien-Hue Provinces. Later the same year Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Tran Hong Ha and Quang Tri officials took a dive into the water at a local beach to restore people's trust in the environment.

It worked. After Formosa apologized to the public and paid out compensation, it was again business as usual: People continued to go out to fish and have fun at the beach and life basically carried on.

That little trip to the beach by the environment minister and officials was widely considered one of the most impressive public acts in the last decade by Vietnamese officialdom.

Now fast forward to 2019, the day the Rang Dong warehouse in Thanh Xuan District, right in the heart of the capital, was consumed by the blaze. For the first 24 hours it was dealt with like any other unfortunate accident. Then the reports started pouring in of people complaining about dizziness, headache and stinging eyes. Only then did people realize the fire was the beginning of something much more serious: another potentially disastrous environmental incident like in 2016.

What has followed, however, is unfathomable.

First, the People’s Committee of Ha Dinh Ward told people not to consume foods like vegetables, fruits and meat sold within a one-kilometer radius of the fire for 21 days. Rumors started to fly that the fire had released mercury into the air.

Within the next few days Rang Dong sent a report to the Thanh Xuan District People’s Committee saying it had been using amalgam instead of pure mercury in its products since 2016.

Then the proverbial hell broke loose as reports started to contradict each other, creating an atmosphere of confusion and uncertainty among the public. Both the city Department of Natural Resources and Environment and the Thanh Xuan People’s Committee said Rang Dong did not use pure mercury in its products. Yet, over 1,000 people lined up for medical checks to look for signs of mercury exposure. Hundreds of them were sent to bigger hospitals for treatment.

On September 4, deputy environment minister Vo Tuan Nhan announced that air samples within a 200-meter radius of the warehouse contained mercury levels up to 30 times higher than what the World Health Organization deems safe.

The same result was announced by several agencies.

But insidiously, Rang Dong admitted it used pure mercury instead of amalgam, a much less toxic alternative, in its 480,000 fluorescent light bulbs, which were burned down in the fire.

A schoolboy covers his nose as another wears a face mask as they travel past Rang Dong warehouse fire site in Hanoi, two weeks after the fire on September 12, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

A schoolboy covers his nose and another wears a face mask as they travel past Rang Dong warehouse fire site in Hanoi, two weeks after the fire on September 12, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

On September 10, an environment analysis report was uploaded on the environment ministry's website, but the report was then taken down and reposted several times, with changes. A much-anticipated press conference that day was canceled.

Exactly how harmful is the mercury released into the air is a question in many people’s minds. One cannot help but notice the similarity with the situation that occurred three years ago when people could only watch their beloved seas get polluted and doubt the safety of the fish and shrimp brought ashore. Only, this time the environment minister was not there to reassure them. Since the fire broke out he has not set foot inside Rang Dong.

I racked my brains to recall the last time Ha actually surveilled an "environment hotspot." Apparently he is a big fan of waste treatment and has repeatedly visited garbage treatment plants in Quang Binh, Hung Yen and Binh Duong Provinces. Make no mistake, it is a good thing since Vietnam is waging a war against plastic waste, with people and businesses rejecting the use of one-time plastic products such as bottles and straws.

But what if he had visited the Rang Dong warehouse fire site right away? At the least, that might have made subsequent environmental analyses much more accurate.

Importantly, it would have shown his humanity: how he cared for his people and how he got into their shoes to understand how they felt. That empathy might have also extended to the decisions he made, making them less bureaucratic and more people-centered. Unfortunately, though, that is something we will never know for sure.

On September 12 the minister announced that environment around the fire site was "safe."

Though it was the last official announcement about the fire, life has not quite returned to what it was in Ha Dinh and other areas in the vicinity. Many people are still waiting for their health reports from hospitals, especially those who had shown signs of mercury poisoning in the beginning. But all they can do is keep waiting.

Maybe all we can do now is trust the authorities, trust that they have done their best to assess the fire’s aftermath and deal with the consequences. Trust that despite all the contradictory information flying around on the Internet, Rang Dong is now truly "safe" as the environment minister said.

*Gia Hien is a journalist based in Hanoi. The opinions expressed are his own.

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