Vietnam’s top environment official offered an apology on Friday for his government’s “confused” handling of a mass fish kill off that has killed tons of fish across a wide swath of the country’s central coast.
Hanoi’s official media quoted Natural Resources and Environment Minister Tran Hong Ha as saying “I sympathize with people in Ha Tinh, Quang Binh, Quang Tri, Thua Thien-Hue (provinces) seriously affected by the environment pollution disaster.”
“Even though ministries and science agencies have made efforts to deal with this disaster, they are still confused, unscientific and slow in reaction, not meeting the expectations of the people and public,” he added.
“As the head of the ministry, I would like to take responsibility for this issue.”
Tonnes of fish have washed ashore in Ha Tinh, Quang Binh, Quang Tri and Thua Thien-Hue provinces along a 200-kilometer (120-mile) stretch of the central coast of Vietnam. The dead fish washing up on beaches along the country's central coast include rare species that live far offshore in deep water.
Tran told reporters that he had talked to the managers of the Taiwanese conglomerate Formosa Plastics Corporation. A mile-long waste water pipeline that runs from that firm’s multi-million-dollar steel plant in the Vung Ang Industrial Zone is believed to be the source of industrial effluent that killed the fish.
“According to Vietnam’s law, the waste pipeline that is being installed unexposed is not allowed. We have requested monitoring measures for this system,” said the minister.
According to activists posting on Facebook, hundreds of people in Quang Binh province brought dead fish to national highway 1A and erected makeshift tents to block the highway to protest Formosa Plastics.
Some in the crowd shouted “Give us our sea back!” and “Give us the fish and shrimp back.”
Tran’s statement indicated Vietnam was backing away from earlier assertions that some form of red tide had caused the fish to die, threatening livelihoods and food supplies.
Red tide ruled out
One fisherman told RFA’s Vietnamese Service he did not believe the red tide explanation.
“In my experience as a fisherman for more than 30 years, I’ve never seen fish die from red tide or toxins,” said the fisherman, who asked not to be identified.
“Even when there’s a huge storm and huge waves, it never causes fish to die and wash up on nearby beaches. But when I’ve gone diving, I’ve seen a huge flow of waste water from the Formosa Plastics Corporation factory,” the fisherman added.
Professor Le Huy Ba, former director of the Institute for Environment, Science, Technology and Management, at the Institute of Industry in Ho Chi Minh City told RFA in an interview that red tide can be ruled out.
“Red tide normally happens at the end of summer, not now. We don’t see any change in the sea color, a sign of red tide,” he said.
“The toxins are chemicals or metals including chromium, nickel, mercury or copper. They must come from industry waste,” added Le.
“We see that fish deaths at the 30- to 40-meter (98- to 131-foot) depth of the sea and this is definitely not due to red tide, but chemicals and metals from massive waste that has very high density,” he said.
Nguyen Viet Thang, president of the Vietnam Fishery Association, told RFA his group was pressing the government to find the cause of the fish deaths, take steps to enable fisherman to return to work, and extend food aid to people who can’t catch or eat fish or sell seafood for a living.
“We are not satisfied with their answers and in terms of science, it is not satisfactory. They used the reason of red tide just for the sake of having something to blame,” he said.
“We need to focus on the obvious phenomena because in some places metal and chromium pollution have been identified,” Thang added.
“At the moment there are dead fish in the sea, in cultivated farms and it is not easy to change the water. We therefore ask the government to provide support to fishermen in the area,” he said.
“They first of all need rice because they can’t work at the moment,” Thang said, suggesting that each fisherman and each member of his family receive 15 kilograms (33 pounds) of rice to tide them over during the crisis.
“This support should last during the time government is doing the investigation and finding the solution to restoring production,” he added.
Reported by Cat Linh and Viet Ha for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Paul Eckert.