The Vietnamese government says it has found no evidence so far that an industrial plant was responsible for the mass poisoning of fish along the country’s central coastline.
Vietnamese media have been pointing the finger at a steel mill run by a subsidiary of the Taiwanese conglomerate, Formosa, alleging that it discharged toxic chemicals from a sewage disposal pipe.
The deputy minister for the environment, Vo Tuan Nhan, told a press conference that no link had been found between emissions from the steel plant and the contamination.
“This is a complicated issue that had happened in many places around the world, requiring time to identify causes,” he said.
“It is necessary to research the cause systematically, fundamentally and in a fact based way.”
Tonnes of fish have been washing up along the shore of four central provinces since early this month. Subsistence fishermen and the owners of fish farms have suffered a devastating loss of income.
There’s concern that Vietnam’s entire $7 billion seafood industry could be in jeopardy.
There is growing frustration, expressed through social media, at what some see as a slow and ineffective response by the authorities.
Mr Nhan said it was still not clear if the contamination was caused by toxic discharges from human activity or a naturally occurring red tide caused by the mass blooming of algae.
Lack of transparency
Local residents have complained they have received little relief from government agencies despite their loss of income.
Civil society organisations are assessing local needs and attempting to arrange relief for those worst affected.
Some are raising doubts about the government’s will and ability to get to the root of the problem.
A lack of transparency and the instinctively secretive workings of the authorities contribute to a lack of trust in the government’s findings, say civil society activists.
Much anger has also been directed at Formosa, despite the lack of direct evidence that it was involved.
A spokesman for the company infuriated local people on Monday by saying that Vietnam had to chose between steel plants and fish and marine products, it was impossible to have both, he said.
At an emergency news conference on Tuesday, the company dissociated itself from the remarks by the spokesman, Chou Chun Fan.
He has since been dismissed from his post and has apologised to the Vietnamese people.
Formosa insists that it had invested in the latest treatment equipped for its steel complex, which is still under construction, and had complied with Vietnamese standards when discharging waste into the sea.
Environmental experts have expressed doubt that the contamination was caused by natural phenomena.
Some say the evidence strongly suggests chemical pollution and that the dead fish are hazardous and must be destroyed immediately.