HO CHI MINH CITY/TAIPEI -- A steel unit of Taiwanese conglomerate Formosa Plastics Group has been accused of causing serious pollution that has blighted fisheries off north-central Vietnamese provinces by releasing untreated wastewater into a nearby sea.
Evidence of poisoning came to light in a Facebook posting on April 2 after tons of shrimp and clams perished when seawater was pumped into their rearing ponds. Similar reports followed from areas further south in the same sea current off Quang Tri, Quang Binh and Hue.
The agriculture ministry told reporters Saturday that the marine life perished in toxic seawater with abnormally high phosphate content and pH levels. While the toxicity seemed to be abating, the authorities had yet to determine the source of the contamination.
Over the last three weeks, however, fingers have pointed to a plant of Hung Nghiep Formosa Ha Tinh Steel in the nearby Vung Ang Economic Zone. Vietnamese authorities inspected the facility on Tuesday after gathering samples from affected areas.
The coastal provinces of central Vietnam depend heavily on the seafood industry. Shrimp, catfish and tuna are among the fishery exports that earned the country $6.7 billion last year.
Vietnamese media have focused on the steel plant's wastewater treatment. Local fisherman Nguyen Xuan Thanh told the Tuoi Tre newspaper that he and others saw yellow water being discharged from a pipe leading from the facility days before dead fish washed up on beaches on April 6.
Chou Chun-fan, the plant's public relations director, added to the poisonous atmosphere when he told local television that Vietnam needed to choose between catching fish and shrimp and having a state-of-the-art steel mill. "You cannot have it all," he said in Vietnamese.
Formosa Plastics Group issued a statement in Taiwan on Tuesday concerning the "unknown pollution" in the sea near Ha Tinh and Quang Binh provinces. "We are completely surprised and sorry to learn of the incident," the company said. "At this point, we cannot understand what has caused the death of the fish."
"We monitor the wastewater system 24 hours a day and seven days a week," a company spokesperson told the Nikkei Asian Review. "It is impossible that we would discharge wastewater that did not meet Vietnamese national standards."
The Vietnamese government has meanwhile drawn flak for its slow response. Nearly three weeks after the first reports, authorities finally got around to warning locals not to eat fish products or include them in animal feed. Deputy Prime Minister Trinh Dinh Dung promised, however, to bring anyone responsible to justice without favor.