The giant Taiwanese conglomerate that appears to be at the center of an investigation into an environmental catastrophe that has seen thousands of tons of dead fish wash ashore in Vietnam is backing away from comments made by an executive concerning the disaster, RFA’s Vietnamese service has learned.
Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corporation, which operates as a subsidiary of Formosa Plastics Corporation, attempted to distance itself from statements made by a company executive, Chou Chun Fan, who was identified as the external affairs manager, which dismissed concerns about the fish kill.
In a copy of a letter from Formosa to media outlets, the company wrote that an interview Chou gave the media the day before was unauthorized and failed to reflect the company’s views.
“Our commitment is to contribute to the development of Vietnam’s industry and comply with Vietnam’s law, protecting the environment,” Formosa wrote.
In the letter, the company defended its environmental record in Vietnam, telling authorities Formosa has invested $45 million in the waste water processing system of the steel plant Formosa owns in Ha Tinh province.
“All wastewater generated from the factory is processed properly,” the company wrote. “It is tested in accordance with Vietnam’s standards before being released to protect the marine ecology and at the same time to ensure Formosa’s adaptation with the area and that our development is on par with the development of the local area.”
Formosa told the authorities it hopes they find the answer to the fish kill.
“We wish that relevant authorities would find out the cause of the mass fish deaths in the Central Coast,” the company wrote. According to the letter, Chou is not the company’s external relations manager. It directed questions on the issue to company Environmental Director Khau Nhan Kiet.
When contacted by telephone, Chou told RFA: “What I said was not right. I am waiting for a discipline decision from the company, and I can’t do an interview now.”
On Monday, the AFP news agency quoted Chou as telling Vietnam’s state-run VTC14 television channel, that “[You] need to choose whether to catch fish and shrimp or to build a state-of-the-art steel mill.”
Ho Uy Liem, vice chairman of the Vietnam Union of Science and Technology Associations, criticized what he said was the government’s lethargy on the fish deaths.
“This issue is very serious and needs to be addressed. However, local governments are very slow in their reactions, especially Ha Tinh province,” he said. “They were too busy with something else, and did not take care of this. The central government was quicker, but we still have not had any result.”
What caused the fish kill is still murky, but the investigation’s focus appears to center on a mile-long pipe that runs from Formosa’s $10.5 billion steel and port facility.
While Formosa admits it owns the pipe, it is unclear if they had the authority to build or use it.
Ho Anh Tuan, director of the Ha Tinh Economic Zone Management Authority, said that Formosa’s wastewater pipe system was approved by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, according to a report by the Vietnam Investment Review. But Hoang Duong Tung, deputy director of the MoNRE Environmental Department, said Formosa was not yet allowed to discharge wastewater into the sea, according to the report.
Formosa is no stranger to controversy in Vietnam. The company has been cited for building an unauthorized temple on the property it leased for 70 years in Vung Ang industrial zone in 2014, the Tuoi Tre News reported at the time.
Formosa has been criticized for demanding more and more concessions from the government, even though it had received a huge number of tax and business incentives from the Vietnamese government.
The plant was also the site of violent protests when Vietnamese attacked the plant after reports that China had moved an oil rig into a disputed part of the South China Sea. Vietnam considers Taiwan to be part of China, which claims sovereignty over the self-governing island. According to a Reuters report, one Chinese worker died and 90 were injured in the riot which took place before the plant opened.
While authorities have warned people not to eat the fish, some people see them as an unexpected bounty and are picking them off the beach and then selling them.
Many traders suddenly showed up with refrigerated trucks offering to buy the dead fish, Tuoi Tre News reported.
A woman in Quang Binh province told RFA “They told people not to eat the fish. They forbid us to eat the fish for safety reasons…. However they still sell dead fish.”
Reported for RFA’s Vietnamese Service by Nam Nguyen and Gia Minh. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.