An apparent environmental disaster off Vietnam’s central coastal region, estimated by some as one of the country’s worst ever toxic spills, represents newly appointed Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s first big political test. How Phuc strikes a balance between foreign investor interests and local community rights in handling the case will set an early precedent for his government’s policy priorities.
The controversy first erupted on April 6 when tons of dead fish, including many deep sea species, began to appear on the shores of central Ha Thinh province. Massive fish fatalities have since been reported in three other central provinces covering a stretch of some 200 kilometers of coastland. Speculation about the cause of the deaths has focused on a steel plant built and operated by Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics through a local joint venture. Reuters reported a first phase of the $10.6 billion planned complex commenced operations in December.
Chu Xuan Pham, a Hanoi-based Formosa representative, inflamed local passions when he told reporters on April 25 that Vietnam would have to choose between “catching fish and shrimp and building a modern steel industry.” Chu was inexplicably removed from his position the next day, according to reports. Formosa’s headquarters released a follow-up statement saying that there was no evidence that discharge from its plant, including from a recently revealed drainage pipe that opens into the sea was responsible for the fish deaths. The company said it was “deeply shocked and sorry” about the deaths without accepting culpability.
Local activists, bloggers and lawyers have responded with outrage. A public statement signed by over 100 rights advocates said the “poisoning of the sea” would have serious economic impacts beyond fishing, including for salt production, sea farming, and tourism, and threatened to spread to nearby countries. The statement, circulated on local blogs, also claimed that the “culprit” behind the apparent spill had received political protection from “powerful quarters” to “buy time and stall the investigation so they can destroy the evidence.” The Diplomat could not independently confirm the allegations.
Phuc’s perceived as tardy response and his Communist party’s past history of suppressing campaigns against foreign industry-related environmental degradation has fueled the ferment. Deputy Prime Minister Trinh Dinh Dung said during an inspection visit to Ha Thinh on April 24, more than two weeks after the fish deaths were first reported, that the culprit would be dealt with “seriously” under local laws. Deputy premier Truong Hoa Binh said that same day that authorities were working to verify state media reports that the fish deaths were possibly caused by Formosa’s underground drainage pipe that outlets into the sea. Phuc, meanwhile, called on provincial authorities to “support” local fishermen.
The official narrative, however, quickly turned. Deputy Environment Minister Vo Tuan Nhan told a press conference on April 27 that a meeting of ministries and agencies could not link with evidence the fish deaths with Formosa’s industrial discharge. He suggested instead that the fish fatalities were the result of either undisclosed human activities or so-called “red tides” caused by unusually large algal blooms. Nhan also told reporters that initial agency tests of sea water in affected areas had met the government’s safety indexes and standards, and that it could take “years” of research to pinpoint the exact cause of the fish fatalities. In a follow-up statement the next day, the government acknowledged its environmental monitoring has been “untimely, inaccurate and infrequent.”
Local experts and scientists, quoted in unusually punchy state media reports, have challenged official explanations for the disaster. A former deputy minister for water resources quoted in the local Thanh Nien state newspaper said the ministry must clarify if chemical agents had poisoned the fish and that officials should invite qualified scientists to conduct the tests. Ho Chi Minh City National University professor Le Phat Quoi said the ministry’s conclusion was unconvincing without detailed data from tests on seawater and dead fish. He noted that earlier publicized test results from a provincial agency had found heavy metals, including chromium, in the seawater.
A lack of accountability and transparency in dealing with the apparent pollution leak could impact on Phuc’s free trade agenda, including entry into the U.S.-led Trans Pacific Partnership multilateral trade pact. Vietnam exported nearly US$7 billion worth of seafood last year, including consistently rising shipments to the European Union, United States and other developed markets. Those countries will no doubt require credible assurances that future shipments are not tainted by the still unexplained disaster. It will also raise questions about Vietnam’s ability to uphold environmental protection provisions included in TPP and a recently concluded free trade agreement with the European Union.
Phuc initially resisted cracking down on activists, lawyers, and journalists who criticized his government’s handling of the disaster. That temperance dissolved on May 1 when thousands of activists staged protests across the country calling for a clean environment and credible official explanations for the fish deaths. Dozens were arrested while state media mainly shied from reporting on the protests and clampdown. While suppression of dissent and media censorship is consistent with the tactics of predecessor Communist Party-led regimes, Phuc’s crackdown has only accentuated perceptions that his government is involved in a hand-in-glove cover-up favoring foreign over local interests.