While the Vietnam government drags it feet on addressing an environmental disaster in which tens of thousands of dead fish washed ashore in the country’s central coastal provinces, other actors are taking steps to limit the damage.
At least 100 tons of dead fish began washing ashore in Ha Tinh, Quang Binh, Quang Tri, and Thua Thien-Hue provinces in early April apparently killed by industrial effluents.
The cause of the catastrophe remains unknown, although it is widely believed that sewage-pipe runoff from a huge steel plant run by Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corporation, a subsidiary of Formosa Plastics Corporation of Taiwan, poisoned the fish.
The company has denied responsibility.
A group of Vietnamese-American activists in California has now sent a petition to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), urging it to thoroughly test and inspect all seafood and fish products imported from Vietnam.
Do Thanh Cong, a rights activist who signed the petition, also sent letters to Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), and to congressmen in California.
“We have to understand that HHS is the main agency [dealing with this matter], while the FDA is just an auxiliary,” Cong told RFA’s Vietnamese Service, adding that the group has also launched an online petition.
So far, the group has received responses from the FDA, which said it is looking into the matter, and Burwell’s office.
When asked about the financial consequences that Vietnamese fishermen will face if they cannot export fish to the U.S., Cong pointed out that Vietnamese are still buying and exporting fish and other marine products, even though they have been poisoned.
“So who is the victim here?” he said. “The direct victims are people inside the country, and we are the indirect victims—millions of overseas Vietnamese who consume such products.’
‘Products that will harm us’
Fishermen from Vietnam’s central region have not been able to fish offshore for several weeks, and local merchants complain that they have not yet received promised support from the government. Security forces have also arrested Vietnamese activists who staged public protests, including one in Hanoi.
The government has provided each family affected by the environmental disaster with 22 kilograms (49 pounds) of rice, but still has not informed them of the cause of the fish deaths.
“Knowing about the problem, can we still let Hanoi export contaminated products that will harm us?” Cong said. “We have to take care of our health first, and then address the problems that fishermen over there are facing.”
But Dang Kim Son, the former director-general of the Institute of Policy and Strategy for Agriculture and Rural Development under Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, told RFA that the situation isn’t that serious.
“If we [stop fish exports from Vietnam], the first victims will be our own fishermen, especially those who have invested a lot in long trips faraway by sea,” he said. “In fact, the pollution has not spread any farther than the currents near the coast.”
Taiwan’s lawmakers call for action
The Vietnamese government has remained tight-lipped about the incident, saying only that it will announce the cause of the mass fish kill sometime this month and is preparing a report to submit to lawmakers when they meet in July.
But Taiwanese lawmakers urged the government on Thursday to investigate Formosa's possible role in the environmental disaster, Agence-France Presse reported.
They fear the incident could jeopardize new President Tsai Ing-wen’s Southbound Policy, which promotes business and investment ties in Southeast Asia to wean Taiwan off its economic reliance on China, the report said.
Formosa has been involved in other pollution incidents in its home country, in the U.S., and in Cambodia.
Taiwan has offered to help the Vietnamese government investigate the incident, but the communist nation refused, the AFP report said.
On Wednesday, Formosa postponed the June 25 operational start date for a furnace at its steel complex in the Vung Ang Economic Zone in Ha Tinh province, with no future date set, according to Taiwan’s official Central News Agency.
The delay came after Taiwanese media reported that Vietnamese authorities have demanded that Formosa pay U.S. $70 million it owes in taxes. The media also reported that Vietnamese authorities needed more time to process an application the company had submitted to begin production at the steel mill.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.