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Record Fine Feared Too Small to Cover Dead Fish Damage in Vietnam

FILE - Political dissident Nguyen Quang A (C) holds a sign which reads "Formasa - damaged the environment and is a criminal" during a protest in Hanoi, Vietnam, May 1, 2016.
FILE - Political dissident Nguyen Quang A (C) holds a sign which reads "Formasa - damaged the environment and is a criminal" during a protest in Hanoi, Vietnam, May 1, 2016.

Observers and activists in Vietnam say a record pollution fine against a foreign-owned steel mill neither compensates all victims nor sends a stern enough warning to the country’s other export manufacturers.

Taiwanese-funded Formosa Ha Tinh was accused of letting toxic waste pollute the ocean in April, causing 80 tons of fish to wash up on beaches in one of the country’s worst environmental disasters.

Taiwanese-funded company fined $500 million for pollution

In June, the government fined the plant $500 million, believed to be the largest ever against a company in Vietnam, for fish deaths along 200 kilometers of coastline southeast of Hanoi. The steel making complex also apologized and agreed to clean up the wastewater system.

But people familiar with the issue say the fine cannot cover the continued losses to fishermen, resorts and locals who may have contracted skin diseases from touching the water. They also hope Vietnamese authorities will test the ocean water to ensure it’s now safe.

Other foreign investors are watching

How much deeper the Vietnamese government bores into the fish death case will send a signal to thousands of foreign investors who have set up export-manufacturing plants in the inexpensive Southeast Asian country to save on costs, in turn helping to expanding the country’s economy by 30 percent over the past five years to $193 billion in 2015.

“We would like to use the case of Formosa as the alert to every enterprise doing business in Vietnam. We don’t want them to get a benefit higher than the environment and the life of the people,” said Le Cong Dinh, counsel in a Ho Chi Minh City law firm. “So we want them to comply with the laws and satisfy the condition of the environment.”

Effects of pollution and fish kill are far reaching

Environment Minister Tran Hong Ha told local media in June the amount covers only direct material damages, not psychological losses to fishermen who lost income. He called the fine “too small.”

Agreeing with that sentiment, Vietnamese living in Taiwan protested last week, calling for the steel plant’s investor, Formosa Plastics Corp., to leave their homeland.

“When I got information on the massive death of fish in the central region, because I’m an engineer I know the problem is the drainage by Formosa into to sea,” said Tran Bang, who researched the case himself in April. “If you can’t have good technology to control (toxics), it’s very dangerous for the environment.”

FILE- Villagers bury dead fish on a beach in Quang Binh, Vietnam.
FILE- Villagers bury dead fish on a beach in Quang Binh, Vietnam.

Criticism of government

Vietnamese authorities need to take more action because about five million people were affected by the fish deaths and some have not recovered, said Duc Truong, an independent journalist and part of the Vietnamese non-governmental organization Brotherhood for Democracy.

Fishermen in the oceans near the steel plant are catching just one fifth of what they could get at this time a year ago and fish sauce producers are suspected of using the dead fish illegally, Duc and other activists said.

Some may be willing to accept pollution

Environmental authorities should test the water quality of the once tainted oceans, said Tran Bang, an engineer and activist in Ho Chi Minh City. He said an independent report turned up excessive levels of six chemicals.

But one central coast city, Da Nang, told local media in April that its waters were already safe for swimming.

Some suspect the government of going easy on Formosa to protect the firm’s $10.5 billion investment.

Seafood sales have eased around the country and Oscar Mussons, international business advisory associate with the Dezan Shira & Associates consultancy in Ho Chi Minh City, said a lot of people have already moved on.

“They already found who to blame and apparently it was a foreign company that caused this incident, so you don’t always see people talking about it,” he said. “For them it might not be an issue because at the end of the day they have money. They come out to play with the iPhone, they ride around on their motorbikes, so they don’t worry too much about complaining to the government.”