In early April, residents along the central Vietnamese coast began noticing unprecedented numbers of dead fish. A month later, over 100 tons worth of dead fish had been collected, and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc had labeled the crisis “the most serious environmental incident Vietnam has faced.”
Phuc promised an investigation. Now, nearly three months after the first dead fish washed ashore, the government has announced its conclusion – and it’s the same one local residents reached from the outset: pollution from a steel plant in Ha Tinh province, owned by Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Group’s local affiliate, Hung Nghiep Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corp, poisoned the fish.
According to the government investigation, which featured over 100 scientists from Vietnam and abroad, Formosa Ha Tinh Steel’s plant discharged industrial waste into the ocean, containing harmful chemicals such as phenol, cyanide and iron hydroxides. That pollution was responsible for killing the fish, Minister Mai Tien Dung announced in a press conference on Thursday.
Residents had long blamed Formosa Ha Tinh Steel, with local fishermen reporting they had seen red water discharging from a dumping pipeline linked to the as yet unfinished plant. The company’s initial response only made things worse, with a representative telling the media, “Before acquiring the land, we already advised local fishermen to change their jobs… Many times in life, people have to make a choice: either to catch and sell fish, or to develop the steel industry. We cannot have both.”
Formosa Ha Tinh Steel took a different approach to the government’s announcement on Thursday, saying it would accept the report’s conclusion – and the responsibility. “We respect the government’s investigation results and are cooperating with the authorities to handle and mitigate the consequences,” the company’s chairman, Chuan Yuan-Cheng, said in a written statement.
Officials from the company attended the government press conference on Thursday, where they offered an apology along with a bow. They also pledged to pay 11.5 trillion Vietnamese dong ($500 million) in compensation for economic losses and to treat the pollution. Tellingly, part of the compensation will go toward helping local fishermen find new employment – a frightening indication that the marine life may never recover.
The fish deaths sparked rare mass protests in major Vietnamese cities over the course of several weeks in April and May. Citizens complained that the government was not taking the matter seriously enough, nor investigating quickly enough. The protests were marred by arrests and violence, according to activists, but apparently had an impact. Notably, Phuc convened a meeting on implementing an emergency response only after the protests began.
Some of the protesters accused the government of looking the other way on the environmental crisis to ensure investment kept rolling in. As Bloomberg reported in May, Formosa Ha Tinh Steel was “considering whether to raise its investment in Ha Tinh from $10.5 billion to $28.5 billion” at the time.
Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that Taiwanese officials in Vietnam have been helping to mediate in order to help both sides settle the dispute as quickly as possible. The ministry added that investors abroad should respect local environmental laws and shoulder corporate social responsibility “in order to avoid harming our country’s overall image or influencing foreign relations.”
The ministry also urged the Vietnamese government to safeguard the rights of all Taiwanese companies investing in Vietnam and to protect the safety of Taiwanese people and property – perhaps fearing a repeat of riots in 2014 that targeted Taiwanese factories. In May 2014, rioters attacked the Formosa Ha Tinh Steel mill, leaving two workers dead and injuring 90.