The Vietnamese government seems to be flailing in its attempt to convince people that the beaches along Vietnam’s central coast are recovering from a devastating toxic chemical spill, even after top officials took a dip in the ocean to prove it is clean enough for swimming.
Natural Resources and Environment Minister Tran Hong Ha told state media on Monday that most beaches in the four central provinces hit in April by the spill from Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics Group steel plant are getting cleaner. Activists and local fishermen, however, say the government’s record on the spill muddies the water.
“They have avoided answering our questions before, so now the people can’t believe them even after they announced their results,” blogger and government critic Nguyen Xuan Dien told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
“Their swimming is just a show because they did it before and nobody believed them then,” he added. “They swam in the sea before, even when the water was toxic.”
According to state media accounts, the Vietnamese government issued a report on Monday that deemed most beaches in Ha Tinh, Quang Binh, Quang Tri, and Thua Thien-Hue provinces safe for swimming and aquaculture.
‘Why not go for a swim?’
To prove the point, Tran and other government officials went for a swim in the ocean at Quang Tri province's Cua Viet Resort, state media reported.
"Scientists have announced that the waters in the four central coastal provinces are now safe for swimming. Why not go for a swim?" Ha said, according to a Vietnamnet report.
While the government says the beach is safe for swimming and aquaculture, it stopped short of declaring the area safe for fishing within 20 nautical miles of the coast, according to the reports.
Dang Viet Hoa, a fisherman from Ha Tinh province’s Dong Yen parish, questioned the government’s findings, telling RFA fish are still dying.
“Announcing the result is their business, but we can’t believe it,” he said. “There are no fish in the deep sea. The only ones living are near the surface.”
Nguyen Tu Cuong from the Vietnam Fisheries Society told RFA it had to examine the report before commenting.
“People who work with fish still can’t resume their businesses,” he said. “We will pay attention to this report, but we will have to analyze the whole report before issuing our official response.”
‘The sea is not safe for us to fish’
But Dang Viet Ho told RFA he doesn’t have to wait.
“We are fishermen living in the area,” he said. “We live with the sea, and we can say that the sea is not safe for us to fish.”
Mai Trong Nhuan, a scientist who headed the government’s team studying the impact of the disaster, told RFA that chemicals in the water and the seabed meet Vietnam’s standards for beach activities and water sports.
While it may be safe to swim in the ocean or begin aquaculture activities, it is too early to tell whether or not it’s safe to catch wild fish, and that the ecosystem also needs time to recover.
“Some fish have returned, but in order to protect the ecosystem we recommend against catching small fish because that will hinder the recovery of the ecosystem and the chance to catch big fish will diminish in the future,” he said.
“At the moment, we can’t be sure about the toxin accumulation in big fish found within 15 km from the coast,” he added. “We therefore recommend not to catch fish within 15 km from the coast.”
Nhuan said the marine ecosystem, including coral reefs, sea grasses and other marine resources that were seriously damaged, has begun to recover.
The Formosa Plastics Group acknowledged in June that it was responsible for the pollution that killed an estimated 115 tons of fish off the central Vietnamese coast
The company pledged to pay $500 million to clean it up and compensate people affected by Vietnam’s worst environmental disaster, which has devastated the fishing and tourism industries in the region.
The government said in a report to the National Assembly in July that the disaster harmed the livelihoods of more than 200,000 people, including 41,000 fishermen.
Formosa Plastics’s $10.6 billion steel complex in Ha Tinh province includes a steel plant, a power plant and a deep sea port, and is one of the largest foreign investments in Vietnam.
Reported by Mac Lam and Viet Ha for RFA's Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.