Formosa Plastics May Not Be Sole Culprit in Mass Fish Deaths in Vietnam

Formosa Plastics May Not Be Sole Culprit in Mass Fish Deaths in Vietnam
Demonstrators, holding signs of environmental-friendly messages, say they are demanding cleaner waters in the central regions after mass fish deaths in recent weeks, in Hanoi, Vietnam May 1, 2016. REUTERS/Kham - RTX2CA0B

What you need to know

Formosa Plastics has agreed to pay US$500 million for the mass fish death in central Vietnam, but should it take full responsibility?

Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corp (FHS), a subsidiary of Formosa Plastics Group, has taken responsibility for killing millions of fish in central Vietnam in April. However, further investigation suggests flaws in Vietnam's handling of the incident.

The incident, which occurred off the coast of central Vietnam, resulted in protests calling on the government to investigate. Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc, who took office in early April, said he would present results before the end of June.

On June 30, the Vietnamese government held a press conference and said that toxic wastewater discharged by FHS was behind the incident. Formosa Plastics accepted responsibility and agreed to pay US$500 million in compensation.

Red tide or FHS wastewater?

In May, the Vietnamese government initially said a red tide – water discoloration caused by harmful algal bloom – had led to the incident. The government later said it was caused by chemicals in FHS wastewater. Still, just days before the press conference, the Vietnam Economic and Cultural Office in Taipei maintained that a red tide was the key cause.

Chen Yean-chang (陳衍昌), professor in the Department of Aquaculture at National Taiwan Ocean University, confirmed that he received a call in late June from an official at the Vietnamese Office in Taipei. The official said there had been red tides in the waters near the FHS plant and asked Chen whether the wastewater discharged by FHS could lead to red tides.

Chen said that because the main cause for a red tide is the amount of ferric materials in water, whatever had caused the ferric levels was responsible for the event.

While the Vietnamese Office in Taipei had reached out to Chen regarding the potential connection between the dead fish and red tide, the Vietnamese government firmly asserted that toxins – phenol, cyanide, and iron (III) oxide-hydroxide – in the wastewater released by FHS was at fault. During the June press conference, officials did not mention red tide.

Formosa Plastics has said there is only an extremely small amount of ferric materials in FHS wastewater and the company always filters the wastewater to meet Vietnam’s environmental regulations before water is discharged.

The Vietnamese government, along with experts from other countries, conducted two water tests in late April and early May. The results of both tests showed that the quality of the water around the FHS factories and waste pipe was legal under Vietnam law. It never released the result of the third water test, which allegedly showed the FHS wastewater had breached standards.

The third test was conducted on May 15 by Vietnamese experts, but the authorities did not supply the results to FHS. The third report was the basis for Vietnam’s accusation against FHS. The company's requests to access the report have been denied by the government.

Vietnamese officials, including Minster of Natural Resources and Environment Tran Hong Ha, insisted that if FHS did not admit it was guilty, the government would prosecute the company.

Questions remain as to whether FHS should take full responsibility for the wastewater treatment, which was contracted to POSCOS, a South Korean steel-making company and then subcontracted to a Vietnamese company.

The Vietnamese government insists that FHS should take full responsibility. FHS believes that according to its contract with POSCOS, the South Korean company should share responsibility.

FHS wanted to seek compensation from POSCOS, but the request was blocked by the Vietnamese government, which argued that FHS is fully responsible given that the incident happened on its premises.

To mitigate further damage to the company and avoid a legal battle with the Vietnam government, FHS management decided to take full responsibility and negotiated a compensation deal with locals.

This article is a translation of an investigation conducted by The News Lens Chinese-language edition.

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First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: Edward White