Full transparency demanded in Formosa disaster

The company chairman, Chen Yuan Cheng, apologised to the people of Vietnam in a video shown at the government's press conference. Photo courtesy AFP.

The company chairman, Chen Yuan Cheng, apologised to the people of Vietnam in a video shown at the government’s press conference. Photo courtesy AFP.

The government’s belated admission that Formosa Ha Tinh Steel was behind one of Vietnam’s worst environmental disasters took some activists and observers by surprise.

There had been fears that government officials would attempt to cover up the liability of such a major foreign investor.

The sight of the company chairman taking full responsibility for the leak of toxic chemicals, apologising, and agreeing to pay US$500 in compensation, may have been unexpected, but it has not been enough to satisfy many of those campaigning for full transparency.

Some environmental experts and other activists are calling for a full judicial process to assign levels of guilt and responsibility, and to decide the levels of compensation.

The government report concluded that violations of construction and testing operations at the steel plant in Vung Ang had led to the death of millions of fish and wrecked the livelihood of entire communities along the central coast.

It found that the toxic chemicals phenol, cyanide and ferrous hydroxide had been leaked into the sea through a waste pipe from the steel plant.

Foreign experts from Japan, France and Germany took part in the investigation, as the government sought to reassure suspicious citizens that there was no cover-up.

Huge outcry

However, in a political system with no tradition of transparency, where the media is under state control, and where protesters and government critics are ruthlessly suppressed, suspicions will persist about the level of complicity between the company and government officials.

A huge outcry on social media following the fish deaths in April and May, and the staging of demonstrations in major cities despite mass arrests and police violence, may have been instrumental in persuading the government that it could not get away with fully exonerating Formosa.

However, voices have already been raised demanding higher levels of compensation.

Environmental activists say millions of people living on the coast will need to be supported, and not just in the short term.

“I think the $500 million is just a small part at the beginning,” said Dr Nguyen Quang A, a prominent pro-democracy campaigner in comments to Radio Free Asia.

“I support legal action to assess all damage and demand Formosa compensate people who live along the affected coast,” he added.

Suspicions persist that government officials are still engaged in a damage limitation exercise and are working with company representatives to ensure the least possible disruption to its activities.

The environmental disaster and its aftermath has been seen as a major test for the newly installed government of the prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc.

The government’s delayed reaction to the disaster, and determination to crush dissenting voices, has done little to reassure citizens that the authorities have their best interests at heart.