Authorities in southern Vietnam have suspended the operations of a leather tanning factory for dumping wastewater into the tributary of a major river despite repeated government warnings, according to newspaper reports.
The Hao Duong Leather Tanning Co. factory had been discharging untreated wastewater into the Dong Dien River, which flows into the main Dong Nai River, for the past six years, according to the Tuoi Tre newspaper.
The plant, just 19 miles south of the center of Ho Chi Minh City, has been fined 10 times for polluting the river and was caught as recently as mid-October discharging the waste, the report said.
The People’s Committee of Ho Chi Minh City has now suspended operations of the factory and given it six months to fix the wastewater problem.
On Nov. 20, Ho Chi Minh City’s Department of Natural Resources and Environment, the city’s police and other local authorities began shutting down equipment at the factory.
It was not immediately clear how the factory could have continued to operate for so long despite being fined 10 times for polluting the river.
Vietnamese media coverage
Domestic Vietnamese media have been providing extensive coverage of the factory’s operations and the government’s latest action.
Hao Duong is a joint stock company that produces leather goods mostly for export and whose tanning factory is located in an industrial park next to the Dong Dien River.
Tang Van Duc, the factory’s general director, would not comment on the pollution case, his secretary said when contacted by telephone.
She said Duc wanted to remain silent because an investigation is “under way.” She referred RFA to the local press for further details.
A recent Environmental Performance Index (EPI) survey ranked Vietnam’s water quality 80th out of a total of 132 nations.
More than half of the nation’s people lack access to a clean water supply.
Discharge of toxic sludge from leather tanning factories could cause potential health problems.
Chromium is frequently used in tanning operations, and the ingestion of chromium through drinking water and agricultural products can cause stomach ulcers and damage kidney and liver functions, experts have said.
No comprehensive scientific assessment of the damage caused by the Hao Duong factory to the Dong Dien River has yet been published.
But residents in the area have been complaining for years about the factory.
On Oct. 30, Tuoi Tre, a government-funded newspaper, quoted a local fisherwoman as saying that her catch had been reduced by more than half since Hao Duong began operations in 2003.
She had formerly caught 10 to 15 kilograms (22 to 33 pounds) of fish per day from the river.
Government agencies disagree
Early last year, action against the Hao Duong factory appeared to be stymied by disagreements among Vietnamese agencies responsible for dealing with pollution issues, reports have said.
In August 2012, the Ho Chi Minh City Industrial Zone and Export Processing Zone Management Board (Hepza) called for a shutdown of the factory because of its repeated violations of environmental laws.
According to a report, Hepza said the company had discharged wastewater at a level 22.3 times higher than the amount allowed by law. Exhaust fume levels were also too high, it said.
But according to the same report, the Ho Chi Minh City Department of Natural Resources claimed at the time that the factory had ceased polluting the river after September 2010.
It further said that the wastewater had been going into the industrial zone’s wastewater treatment center and not directly into the river.
Finally, as recently as Nov. 16, the Saigon Times Online reported that government agencies continued to disagree about how to deal with the Hao Duong company’s repeated violations of environmental laws.
On October 14 of this year, environmental police from the Ministry of Public Security and their counterparts in Ho Chi Minh City conducted a raid on the Hao Duong factory.
They caught workers using three pumps to release “a large volume of untreated wastewater into the Dong Dien River…,” Tuoi Tre said.
A police investigation then showed that the factory typically discharged untreated wastewater two to three times a week under the cover of night to avoid being detected.
To date, the company has been fined 10 times, the police told Tuoi Tre, with the heaviest fine, VND 340 million (U.S. $16,000), imposed by the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee in August, 2012.
According to one foreign expert, it appears that it may be cheaper for companies in Vietnam to pay fines than to install and run pollution-control equipment.
But in at least one case in the past, a foreign-owned company was forced to pay a high rate of compensation to Vietnamese farmers after officials found that its factory had been pouring wastewater into a river for 14 years.
In September 2010, farmers in the southern province of Dong Nai accepted pollution compensation worth nearly 120 billion VND, or roughly U.S. $6.3 million, from Vedan Vietnam, a Taiwanese-owned monosodium glutamate maker.
Existing system’s failure
The Hanoi-based NGO International Center for Environmental Management (ICEM) said in a report last year that Vietnam’s existing pollution-control framework was “not responding to the scale of the problem in a timely or systematic way.”
ICEM listed half a dozen factors that have constrained effective pollution control—limited skill levels and technological know-how, insufficient manpower, unclear operational procedures, overlapping regulatory mandates, and finally, limited financing.
The NGO said that introducing pollution control equipment may be difficult to finance.
It proposed as a possible solution the funding of one-time subsidies to companies to help them install the equipment.
But ICEM did not address the possibility that bribes or corruption could be behind the delays in enforcing compliance with pollution controls in cases such as that of the Hao Duong factory.
A cartoon published several weeks ago by Tuoi Tre pointed to the issue of unanswered questions in the Hao Duong case.
Drawn by an artist nicknamed “Hot Pepper,” the cartoon shows two policemen standing next to smiling factory buildings with more than a dozen “notices of fines” piled on top of pipes spewing wastewater into a river.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service.