The owners of the Formosa Ha Tinh steel mill have accepted responsibility for a chemical spill that devastated the fishing industry along Vietnam’s central coast, but questions still remain over how the Taiwan firm's industrial project and its faulty pollution controls won government approval.
Vietnamese lawmaker Vo Kim Cu, a key figure in Ha Tinh province where the plant is located, broke his silence over his role in approval of the plant as he spoke to the local media for the first time this week.
“I was really surprised” about the spill, he told Tuoi Tre newspaper. “We insisted that Formosa strictly follow Vietnamese law and environmental protection standards, and we thought they would do so, given their huge investment in the project.”
Cu was reportedly a strong backer of Formosa in 2008, when he was deputy chairman of the Ha Tinh administration and head of the management board of the Vung Ang Economic Zone. According to local media reports, he granted a license to the company giving it permission to operate in Vung Ang for 70 years.
Layers of approval
Cu told Tuoi Tre that he is only “partially responsible” for the scandal, insisting that his approval of the Formosa project “was in line with regulations, [and] the violations are totally the business of Formsa.”
He insisted that any blame for the actions of the steel company following his approval should be directed at the “competent agencies” of the government.
Vietnam Breaking News.com quoted Cu as saying that the proposal for the Formosa project was reported to the government, reviewed by 12 specialized ministries, and approved by the prime minister.
“Finally, the government allowed Ha Tinh to license the project,” Cu said.
Nguyen Quang A, former director of the disbanded think tank IDS, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that there is more than enough blame to go around.
“Cu breached the law when granting a 70-year license to Formosa,” he said. “According to the laws, he could only give 50-year licenses at maximum. After that, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung ordered Deputy Prime Minister Hoang Trung Hai to accept that, so both Nguyen Tan Dung and Hoang Trung Hai broke the law, because they had no such authority.”
Not everyone thinks Cu should share in the blame. In a Facebook post, blogger and environmental activist Nguyen Anh Tuan warned against making Cu a scapegoat.
“If we can’t prove what Cu said is wrong, then it is not right to make him take the whole responsibility for the Formosa scandal because it is a sign of a cover-up by some individuals, and the organizations above him,” he said. “We know they are ministers, the prime minister, and the politburo of the party.”
Nguyen Quang A agreed with that assessment.
“The whole problem of Formosa’s operations is the party’s responsibility,” he said. “The head of the party is Nguyen Phu Trong, so he is the final one. He holds the ultimate power in this country.”
A Vietnamese government investigation into the April spill determined that the release of toxic chemicals including cyanide from the plant caused the fish kill, and the company—a subsidiary of the Taiwanese Formosa Plastics Group—apologized for the spill and offered $500 million in compensation.
The spill caused an estimated 70 tons of dead fish to wash up on the shores of Vietnam’s central coast starting in early April. An untold number of people were sickened when they ate the fish, and the disaster sparked rare protests across Vietnam, drawing a harsh crackdown from the communist government.
Civil society groups say that both Formosa and the government failed to address the question of how the disaster happened, and whether Vietnamese officials abetted the Taiwan company’s skirting of environmental rules and standards. Some say the $500 million compensation package is too little, while others fear it will be pocketed by corrupt officials.
Reported by Cat Linh for RFA's Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.