The Government late last month announced the results of a preliminary investigation into the massive fish deaths in four central provinces of Việt Nam, with Formosa being the culprit. In the time to come, much remains to be done to clean up the sea environment and support those whose lives depend on it. Viet Nam News talks to officials, scientists and a representative of fishermen about this issue.
How do we guarantee that Formosa will do what it has committed to do to fix the damages?
I think that we have many reasons to believe that Formosa (FHS) will comply with its commitments. Firstly, the Vietnamese Government has expressed its determination not to trade off the environment for economic interests. The Prime Minister also confirmed the Government would shut down FHS if it lets a similar incident happen again.
We also have quite a strict legal system on environmental protection, which is enough to deter and punish any organisation or individual causing harm to the environment. There are still loopholes, though, I admit, but they will be fixed soon.
Last but not least, the global trend now is strongly supporting sustainable development with greener manufacturing to protect the environment. Any organisations or individuals polluting the environment will be condemned and boycotted on a global scale, which seriously pulls down their business competitiveness in the world.
What exactly does FHS have to do with its manufacturing system to stop the pollution?
The process for producing coke at FHS was one that released toxins, causing the mass fish deaths in the four central provinces. The coke producing technology, therefore, must be changed. FHS has agreed to switch to another eco-friendly technology, which requires a huge amount of investment, in the next three years. In the meantime, Vietnamese authorities will strictly monitor the treatment processes for air emissions, and water and solid waste, produced by the current coke ovens.
We will also force FHS to make changes to its wastewater treatment system to meet two big requirements: all wastewater at FHS must be treated comprehensively by particular technologies for each type of wastewater. The second requirement is that FHS must build new biomarker ponds to store the treated wastewater over a period of time for later monitoring and safety assessment. Only when the monitoring parameters, automatically sent to Viet Nam’s environmental agencies, show that the treated wastewater is safe enough to be discharged to the sea, will the authorities allow FHS to do so.
Those ponds will also act as temporary wastewater storage facilities in case unexpected incidents occur. Substandard wastewater will not be released to the sea and will be collected and treated later.
Regarding FHS’s underground pipelines that discharge wastewater to the sea, what actually matters is whether the water is treated according to environmental standards. Those pipelines are not exclusive in Việt Nam but, on the contrary, are quite commonly used around the world to avoid disrupting traffic on land and the coastal environment. If the wastewater is treated properly, it is totally fine to discharge it via pipelines.
The Vietnamese Government itself will invest in an advanced sea environment monitoring system, of which the system in the four particular central provinces will be jointly built by the FHS. The monitoring system will help authorities recognise changes in the sea environment and therefore prevent an environmental disaster before it actually happens.
What are the damages identified so far?
After three months of research, we can now conclude that about 460ha of coral reefs were severely damaged and have little chance of recovering. The mangrove ecosystem and the seaweed were not affected much. The disaster scale was quite large, but the total losses, both present and long-term, are hard to determine in terms of a final and comprehensive number.
Work to completely restore the marine life is difficult and takes a long time. But it is possible.
For example, Việt Nam has managed to grow coral reefs at reasonable costs. That could very well be the new job for affected locals in the central region, which might take a few decades before the coral reefs are fully grown and attract tourism.
The Government is working on plans to create new jobs for the affected fishermen, one of which is to help the locals switch from near-shore to offshore fishing. Tourism is also a high-potential industry to take in affected locals who have to quit fishing due to the disaster.
Võ Sĩ Tuấn, director of the Institute of Oceanography, Việt Nam Academy of Science and Technology
Was the marine environment in the four provinces of Hà Tĩnh, Quảng Bình, Thừa Thiên-Huế and Quảng Trị damaged a lot?
There are small coral reefs near Hải Vân Mountain Pass, Sơn Dương, Sơn Chà and Cồn Cỏ islands. Even though these coral reefs are small, they are still an important habitats for the aquatic species there.
After the pollution, the coral reefs by Yến Island in Quảng Bình Province and Sơn Dương Island in Hà Tinh Province and some southern sites of Thừa Thiên - Huế Province have been affected at different levels. We must also pay attention to the degradation of habitats including not only coral reefs but also others such the coastal lagoon and river mounths system.
What do you think we should do to restore the sea habitats in these areas?
We have to support the natural recovery process. A huge number of fish died, but small fish born in other areas can move there in the future. Our job is support this process, such as protecting habitats and preventing fishermen from using destructive fishing methods, which are popular in these provinces.
In addition, we can help restore the coral reefs artificially. For example, in some countries, they place an entire ship underwater to serve as a shelter for fish, or we can put some concrete structures in the sea, like what we did at Nha Phu waters. Instead of waiting for fish to move naturally, we can do sea ranching at the designated areas to enhance recruitment of resources.
However we should improve sea management and protection. If not, after the corals and fish recover and start to thrive again, the fishermen will use destructive fishing methods and ruin it all.
Asides from restoring the ecosystem, we have to limit direct discharges into the sea because there are many factories, not only Formosa, that are discharging their waste into the sea. Statistics from the Việt Nam Environment Administration during the last five years already showed signs of environmental degradation in the four central provinces. The degradation will hinder the development of aquatic resources.
Some have said that in order to properly clean the sea, we would have to suck out all the sediment because pollutants sank into the seabed. Is that true?
This is easier said than done. The sea is vast - how can we take out all the sediment? Even if we could remove the polluted sediment, where would we dispose of it? Not to mention that this action would disturb the seabed and affect the coral reefs.
If that’s the only choice we have, then we must have a very detailed plan and a careful impact assessment. We can’t risk taking out all the polluted sediment and causing more harm to the seabed.
The sea will clean itself, but whether the process is short or long will depend on how toxic the substances are. We’ll have to wait for more analysis to get an answer to this question.
Professor Yasuaki Maeda, Osaka Prefecture University, Co-director of Biomass Centre in Vietnam National University, Hà Nội
What do you think about the environmental damages caused to Viet Nam’s central region by Formosa steel company’s wastewater dumping?
According to the economic growth in Viet Nam, we will face a trade-off between economic growth and the environment. Not only Vietnamese companies, but also foreign companies should seriously think about how to keep the environment clean. We have many experiences with environmental improvement in the areas of air pollution, water pollution and soil pollution in Japan, and also in the EU. The Vietnamese Government should learn from those experiences to avoid repeating the same mistakes.
The Vietnamese Government is working on a plan to clean up the sea. How long do you think the clean-up work will take before the sea environment is recovered?
I think it will take at least 10 years, considering the recovery of the biosphere and also the sediment. For example, 40 years after the Minamata disease outbreak in Japan, caused by the release of methylmercury into Minamata Bay via industrial wastewater, the fishermen still cannot sell the fish caught there. In this case, the toxic chemicals involved might be cyanide and phenol, which do not have as long of a decomposition rate, so I think the recovery of the environment does not need 30-40 years, but at least 10 years.
What do you think Viet Nam should do to clean up the sea?
Once the marine environment is polluted, we can do nothing about it. All we can do is refrain from adding more pollutants to the polluted area. We should control the wastewater to ensure it has been treated properly.
Many Vietnamese now fear they will contract health problems similar to Minamata disease* if they eat the seafood caught from the central region’s sea. What do you think about this and what should Viet Nam do to prevent such a tragedy from occurring?
The Government, citizens and companies should all collaborate on efforts to improve the environment, and we cannot just look for economic development, but also a good balance between the economy and environment. From now on, we should think about green growth.
A member of an independent group working on marine environmental pollution assessment, who wanted to stay anonymous
What are the findings of your group?
Our group has been collecting samples from the seawater and sediment in certain spots in Hà Tĩnh Province (on May 1), as well as the provinces of Quảng Bình, Quảng Trị, Thừa Thiên-Huế, Đà Nẵng and Quảng Nam (from May 18 to May 22), and conducting independent analysis of these samples.
Our results show that the levels of highly toxic heavy metals such as mercury, lead, cadmium and cromium in the seawater and sediment in these areas are below the allowed concentrations, according to Việt Nam’s standards. Those levels, however, are only applicable for the sampling sites and at the sampling times.
With limited resources, we could only focus on finding out whether the seawater and marine sediment in these areas are contaminated with heavy metals.
With such findings, could you estimate how long it would take for the sea to be clean and safe again?
In order to answer the question of how long it would take, we need more information. In the coming time, we will try to find out whether the seawater and sediment are contaminated with persistent organic pollutants (POPs). We will focus on two classes of POPs that are controlled in Viet Nam’s regulations for seawater and sediment quality: polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH).
POP exposure may cause developmental defects and chronic illnesses. According to the Government report, phenol is one of the main causes of the recent mass fish deaths. Therefore, we suspect that POPs might be present and associated with phenol in the organic waste of the industrial plants.
While we’re going to conduct more analysis to be able to better assess the seawater pollution in these areas, we suggest that the Government also focus on comprehensively assessing the levels of POPs in the seawater and sediment. Heavy metals and POPs, due to their persistence, can bioaccumulate in sea creatures, and subsequently humans if the seafood is consumed, with potential harmful impacts to human health. We also think that it’s essential to have a group working on health risk assessment that can work in collaboration with the analysis group to issue warnings to people about how safe the sea is at certain points of time.
In the long run, it’s very important that proper and rigorous monitoring systems for wastewater treatment and discharge are installed, not only at the steel plant, but also all other industrial plants in the area, like the power plant. Seawater and marine sediments have been polluted, and it’s vital to keep it as clean as possible so that it can recover quickly.
Trần Trung Thành, Chairman of the People’s Committee of Cảnh Dương Commune, Quảng Trạch District, Quảng Bình Province
To respond to local residents, the People’s Committee has held a meeting with more than 100 fishermen in the commune to listen to their concerns about their health and livelihoods after the Formosa incident.
At the meeting, most of the fishermen and their families asked the Government to conduct health checks to determine whether they were affected by the toxic water discharged by Formosa. They also wanted to know when the sea will be safe again for them to go fishing inshore.
Fourteen residents argued that Formosa should not be allowed to operate in Viet Nam anymore for fear of further environmental incidents in the future.
We don’t have the competency to address these matters, so we have passed along these concerns to the People’s Committee of Quảng Bình Province. –VNS
*Minamata disease is a neurological syndrome resulting from severe mercury poisoning, which was first discovered in Minamata city in Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, in 1956. It was caused by the release of methylmercury into Minamata Bay via industrial wastewater from Chisso Corporation’s chemical factory. Official figures from March 2001 recorded 2,265 cases of Minamata disease, of which 1,784 resulted in fatalities. — VNS