Vietnam Cracks Down on Polluters

Pollution in a Vietnamese river. Robert Judges / Alamy

Pollution in a Vietnamese river. Robert Judges / Alamy

Long before a government report confirmed it, villagers living along the banks of the Thi Vai river in the Mekong Delta knew full well that the waterway was dead. They had complained for years that industrial waste discharged into the Thi Vai had poisoned their wells, killed all the fish and was making them sick. Yet it wasn’t until cargo companies refused to dock at the river’s main port — saying that the toxic brew was eating through the ships’ hulls — that Vietnam officials were willing to get tough on polluters.

Last month, with pressure mounting, investigators announced they had caught a Taiwanese-owned monosodium glutamate factory red-handed. Though it had taken three months of undercover work, inspectors discovered that Vedan Vietnam, a foreign-owned company, was illegally dumping untreated waste into the river. Natural Resources and Environment Minister Pham Khoi Nguyen called it “not just a violation but, in fact, treacherous behavior.” An unprecedented crackdown followed: a Korean MSG manufacturer was nabbed dumping toxic waste. Several foreign-owned starch factories, which can release cyanide during processing, were shut down. On October 10, inspectors caught a Vietnamese leather tanning company pumping carcinogenic chemicals into a river in Ho Chi Minh City.

This sudden, aggressive enforcement of environmental regulations has become almost a rite of passage for industrializing nations. Now it’s Vietnam’s turn. The communist government’s embrace of the free market has lifted millions out of poverty over the last decade. But just as in neighboring China, environmental considerations have been largely pushed aside in the race to build factories and industrial parks, few of them equipped with adequate wastewater treatment facilities.

The predictable result: pollution of the country’s lands and waters on a shocking scale. According to Vietnam’s state media, thousands of large — and small-scale industries — discharge at least 33,000 cubic meters of waste into the Mekong River system every day. Midwife Le Thi Thanh Thuy, who lives a kilometer from the Vedan plant, tells pregnant women living along the Thi Vai River not to drink the water. Even some well water burns people’s skin and isn’t used to wash clothes. “They are so poor, they don’t have enough money to buy rice,” says Thuy. “So how can they buy water?”

Enforcement gets short shrift, because local governments benefit from development, says Doan Canh, a professor at the Institute for Tropical Biology. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment has only a few environmental inspectors, who typically must get permission from factory owners to inspect an industrial site. And when a company is found to be illegally discharging wastewater, the fines are too low — Vedan was fined several times in the past for a total of $1,400 — to be a deterrent. “I gave evidence of serious pollution from these factories, particularly Vedan, in 1994,” says Canh. “But the relevant state agencies have let those violations continue for years.”

What angers villagers is that the pollution is there for anyone to see. Le Thi Nung doesn’t need a scientist in a lab coat to tell her that the river is full of poison. Her village in Dong Nai’s district of Long Thanh once depended upon fishing and small farms. “After Vedan opened, the pollution killed all the fish so I had nothing to feed my seven children,” she complains, adding that the factory brought few of the promised benefits, only cancers and stomach ailments. With no other options, Nung’s 19-year-old daughter married a Taiwanese man twice her age. The family now lives on the $100-$200 she sends home every month.

Environmental degradation is beginning to threaten some of the economic gains Vietnam has made. Once lucrative shrimp farms are dying, and the country’s efforts to market itself as a tourist destination are undermined by images of poisoned rivers. And while it is doubtful that the Thi Vai river’s chemical stew could actually eat through a steel hull, the threat that ships would not stop at the Go Dau port, delivered a clear message about the potential economic impact of pollution.

On Tuesday, October 14, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung ordered the government to get tough on polluters. It fined Vedan $16,000 and ordered to the company to pay $7.6M in environmental back dues it owes. These are fees the company was supposed to pay in order to pollute. They had not paid these fees in several years and so criminal charges could still be filed. This should send out a clear message to all manufacturers, says Natural Resources and Environment Minister Pham Khoi Nguyen.

But the Prime Minister’s call for tougher enforcement also cautioned local authorities to balance environmental protection with development to ensure growth is sustainable. In a press conference after the charges against Vedan were made public, Nguyen, the Natural Resources and Environment Minister, conceded he was under a lot of pressure. “Many local officials have called me to say that we have to lower standards on the environment,” the Natural Resources and Environment Minister said, “otherwise they can’t attract foreign investors.”

Meanwhile, Vedan is still making condiments for Vietnam’s dinner tables. Despite the tough talk, it does not appear that the government is going to shut them down.
Vietnam Cracks Down on Polluters – TIME

EU slams jailing of Vietnam reporter

The European Union has labelled Vietnam’s jailing of an anti-corruption journalist as “an attack on the freedom of expression”.

The Presidency of the Council of the European Union said it regretted this week’s rulings against Nguyen Viet Chien, who was sentenced to two years’ prison, and fellow reporter Nguyen Van Hai, who received a non-custodial term.

“These sentences are an attack on the freedom of expression as recognised in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ratified by Vietnam, and to which the European Union recalls its commitment,” said the statement received by AFP.

The United States, Sweden and two media rights groups earlier protested against the rulings against the reporters and their two police sources for helping expose a major graft scandal in a transport ministry unit.

London-based human rights group Amnesty International also demanded that Chien “be immediately and unconditionally released” and stressed that it “considers him a prisoner of conscience”.

Amnesty said the 2005-2006 corruption scandal – in which officials of the so-called PMU 18 division embezzled and squandered aid funds – “was initially dealt with by unprecedented openness” in the media and legislature.

The guilty verdicts, however, “are indicators of just how much the Vietnamese authorities have retreated from that initial openness, turning the Vietnamese media back to a government mouthpiece,” said the group.

© 2008 AFP

EU slams jailing of Vietnam reporter – Breaking News – World – Breaking News

Vietnamese journalist jailed for exposing regime scandal

by Thuy Dung
Four defendants stood before the court for exposing the PMU 18 bribery affair. Those who defended themselves got harsher sentences.

Hanoi (AsiaNews) – After a two-day trial a Hanoi court handed down a two-year sentence to a journalist, a year sentence to a former police officer, a warning to another journalist and house arrest for the former chief of the investigative police. All four defendants had been charged in connection with the worst scandal to hit Vietnam’s Communist regime.

The affair involved Project Management Unit 18 (aka PMU 18), a plan to spend millions of dollars to upgrade the country’s infrastructure, especially roads and bridges, which instead ended up as bets on European soccer matches, money to buy luxury cars and pay for mistresses and prostitutes.

The scandal, which broke wide open in 2006, compromised several senior government and party officials. The Transportation minister had to resign and his deputy minister got 18 months in prison.

However, even though the government tried quietly to sweep the affair under the rug, ordering new trials that ended in acquittals and reinstatement in the party, two journalists exposed 40 “other” officials who gave and took bribes to hush up matters. It was rumoured that among these “other” officials there were even more senior political leaders. And so we had this trial.

In traditional Stalinist fashion the official report by state-run VNA news agency noted that all “four defendants said that their offences were professional errors and pleaded for clemency on the grounds of their previous contributions as well as health reasons.” The trial, the report explained, “touched upon the responsibilities” of the newspaper’s editors-in-chief where the “ex-reporters had made erroneous reports.”

The first statement is plainly not true whilst the second is an obvious threat.

In fact 56-year-old journalist Nguyen Viet Chien challenged the charges, especially that of “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state.”

“With my journalist conscience, I can say I never have any other purpose in mind when writing my reports” other than “exposing wrongdoing and fighting corruption,” he told the court.

“When PMU 18 [affair] was discovered, the whole political system of this country was focused on the issue,” he added.

In the end he got two years in prison for his pains.

The other journalist, 33-year-old Nguyen Van Hai, did admit his errors and so got house arrest.

Colonel Dinh Van Huynh defended himself on the first day of the trial and said nothing on the second and was sentenced to a year in prison.

Police Major General Pham Xuan Quac, 62, who headed the investigation, did not utter a word during the trial and only got an official “warning”.
VIETNAM Vietnamese journalist jailed for exposing regime scandal – Asia News