Protesters in northern Vietnam’s Hai Duong province have vowed to continue blocking the entrance to a textile factory that has polluted local water supplies, despite threats from local authorities, until the company ceases operation and moves from the area.
For more than two years, Hong Kong-owned Pacific Crystal has been discharging smoke into the air which people have described as “horrible” and smelling like “burnt plastic.” Noise from its production operations has prevented residents from sleeping at night, and water in the vicinity has turned black, protesters said.
When locals detected the foul smell in the area a year ago and found it coming from water discharged by the mill, they reported it to the local government, which they say has failed to address and resolve the problem.
Since April, they have been setting up tents in front of the factory building to prevent workers from entering, effectively forcing Pacific Crystal to cease operation in Hai Duong, a highly industrialized province 50 kilometers (31 miles) east of the capital Hanoi.
Local government officials have failed to persuade the protesters to move the tents because residents of Lai Vu commune in the province's Kim Thanh district, said they do not trust administrators who have promised to stop the pollution.
A resident who requested anonymity told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that the group of protesters are still manning the tents around the clock to keep tabs on the textile plant which serves global fashion brands, including Japan’s Uniqlo.
She said authorities have continuously threatened the protesters in person and via loudspeakers to try to convince them to remove the tents so the mill can reopen.
“The authorities are still threatening us, saying that what we are doing is illegal and that we have to demolish the tents immediately, but we haven’t listened to them,” she said.
“We told each other that we are determined to prevent the company from operating under any circumstances,” she said. “We take turns staying in the tents to keep watch, both day and night.”
“When they [authorities] came to meet with us, we said that we can’t let it operate again because we’ve been suffering from the pollution for so long — more than two years,” she said.
The protester said local government officials tried to persuade them to let the company operate at 50 percent of its capacity, and only return to full capacity once it has implemented a wastewater treatment system, but they rejected the proposal.
“We said we didn’t believe them!” she said. “From time to time, they have lied to us and deceived us. We are determined to keep the tents!”
On Sept. 19, local authorities held a news conference to acknowledge the pollution and that people have set up tents to observe the company’s activities. They said they would allow the company to remedy the situation and resume its operations, and warned that if it pollutes the environment again, it would be closed permanently.
Nguyen Hong Son, director of Hai Duong’s Propaganda and Training Department, said that the province will get rid of the tents and punish those who try to provoke public disorder in the area.
At the press conference, Pacific Crystal executives promised not to discharge any more toxic wastewater and said it is creating an environmental protection system at the request of Vietnam’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.
When RFA contacted Pacific Textiles Holdings Ltd., the parent company of Pacific Crystal, on Sept. 21, the secretary to Director General Simon Chou said he had no further information on the situation.
“We have worked closely with the local government for a very long time to solve the problem,” said the man who did not give his name. “We do not currently have any specific plans for the future, but I think the best way forward is to work with and rely on the local government.”
Pacific Textiles and garment maker Crystal Group opened the factory in Hai Duong in 2015 as a joint venture with a reported initial investment of at least U.S. $180 million, according to a Reuters report in July.
The company previously said that its factory in Vietnam had discharged wastewater only once, on Dec. 24, 2016, and that it had not reached a river, Reuters said. A company official said the factory had taken measures to stop further wastewater discharges with help from the local government.
When RFA contacted Bui Do Dat, vice president of Lai Vu commune, prior to the news conference, he said that officials would address and resolve the problem at the event, but provided no further information.
During a previous interview, Dat told RFA that locals had discovered that Pacific Crystal was discharging waste and began protesting by setting up the tents.
At the time, Dat also said that residents affected by the pollution should receive individual compensation, but because the company had discharged effluent into a common water system and river, the damage to individuals could not be determined.
“That’s why they can’t compensate anyone in particular,” he said. “We can only punish the company for causing pollution in general.”
Authorities fined Pacific Crystal 672 million dong (U.S. $29,100) for releasing toxic wastewater last December and hit the firm with a 340 million dong (U.S. $14,725) fine in April after it failed to supply documents and reports they requested.
The factory was discharging between 1,500 cubic meters and 2,000 cubic meters of wastewater a day, according to an announcement that accompanied the first penalty, Vietnam’s Tuoi Tre News reported in February.
Despite the levying of fines, villagers continued to accuse the factory of polluting the environment and set up their tent blockade on April 12.
They told RFA that they will not comply with authorities’ request to dismantle the tents until the company leaves the area.
“We are determined to fight, even if it requires bloodshed!” said the female protester.
When residents from Lai Vu commune previously went to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment to ask for help, they were promised that the problem would be resolved, she said.
When RFA asked her what the protesters still demanded, she said they want the central government to clear up the issue.
“To be honest we are sick of doing this [staying in the tents to watch the company] because it takes so much time,” she said. “Nevertheless, we can’t have peace of mind at all if we allow it to continue operating.”
“It discharges waste directly into the environment,” she said. “The chemicals that come out are unbearable for us.”
Protests against foreign-owned factories that emit pollutants in Vietnam are not uncommon and pose a challenge to the communist state’s authority.
A toxic spill by Taiwan-owned Formosa Plastics Group in central Vietnam in April 2016 that polluted more than 125 miles of coastline along four provinces prompted a slew of protests by residents, fishermen and tourism industry workers who lost their food supply and livelihoods to the environmental disaster.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Emily Peyman. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.