The peasants have no fish? Let them eat steel!

commentary posted 2016-05-21 - last updated 2016-10-14
Eat steel

Magna Cum Laude, from the Marie Antoinette School of Public Relations

It only took about ten days for locals to determine that an Industrial Zone pipe that was discharging foul-smelling waste water into the sea was the likely cause of the sudden death of 80 tons of fish along the central coast of Vietnam. It took another ten days for the Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and Environment to announce that the waste water pipe belongs to a steel firm under the Formosa Plastics Group conglomerate of Taiwan. While authorities were claiming there was no evidence the steel firm's waste water caused the massive fish deaths, the steel firm nonetheless deployed its highest level spin doctor to calm the concerned community.

Chou Chun Fan, the firm's public relations director, chose his words carefully:

I cannot assure you that the activities of the steel factory would not impact marine life. You win some, you lose some... Of course, we tried to meet national standards but we have to exchange something for the project. Sometimes, we can't have it all, we have to choose. You have to decide whether to catch fish and shrimp, or to build a modern steel industry.

It only took less than a day for the subsequent furor to force the firm to completely disavow Mr. Fan's comments. The next day he was fired, sent back to Taiwan (perhaps for his own safety), and expressed contrition:

I have to take responsibility for my action. I hope that Vietnamese people will excuse me for my statement. Once again, I sincerely apologize to you.

Oh win some, you lose some. Still, this won't look good on his resume.

Updates (2016/09/01)

  • June 30, 2016:

    Vietnamese officials announced at a press conference that a discharge of toxic chemicals from the Formosa Ha Tinh Steel plant was the cause of the massive fish deaths.

    Formosa Ha Tinh Steel, a subsidiary of Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics Group, has been ordered to pay $500 million to compensate local fishing communities that have been devastated by the incident, in addition to making significant improvements to the waste treatment facilities at the plant.

    The CEO of the steel producer, Chen Yuan Cheng, apologized for the incident in a pre-recorded video shown at the press conference.

  • July 30, 2016:

    Tran Hong Ha, Vietnam's natural resources and environment minister, said in a televised meeting held by the country's parliament, that FPG paid US$250 million in compensation on July 28 for the damage inflicted by the pollution, and the other half of the compensation -- US$250 million -- is expected to be paid on Aug. 28.

    The Vietnamese minister said that the government has placed the US$250 million worth of compensation from FPG in a single bank account and will distribute the funds to the victims of the pollution case and also use the funds to clean the toxic waste discharged by the FPG's steel complex, Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corp.

  • Sep. 1, 2016:

    About 3,000 Roman Catholic parishioners from central Vietnam took to the streets to protest against a Formosa Plastics Group steel plant responsible for a release of toxic chemicals in April that killed tons of marine life and left fishermen and tourism industry workers jobless in four provinces, Radio Free Asia reports.

    "It has been four months since Formosa caused the pollution and people still have no jobs", said one protestor. “Formosa paid U.S. $500 million [for the pollution], but the government has not paid the people,” said another protester. “We are looking for money to send our children to school.”