A resident of Ben Cat District in Binh Duong Province shows where a secret sewer from San Miguel empties into Ben Van Creek. Locals say there are three such illegal sewers.
VietNamNet Bridge – San Miguel Pure Foods Vietnam literally burst into public consciousness late last month when an impoundment dam failed, spilling 230,000 cubic meters of untreated wastewater into a tributary of the Saigon River. Subsequent investigation has revealed that local residents have long been complaining of environmental abuse by the Philippine-owned enterprise.
San Miguel Pure Foods Vietnam’s principal operation is a huge pig farm, part of the Manila-based San Miguel Corporation’s agro-industrial empire. Until the firm’s wastewater impoundment dam burst on July 25, spilling 230,000 cubic meters of untreated wastewater into Ben Van creek, then the Thi Tinh River, and then the Saigon River, the farm was an annoyance only to the people who lived nearby in Ben Cat district of Binh Duong province.
The incident at San Miguel Pure Foods (SMPF) Vietnam roused concern in the Ho Chi Minh City area because the black water did not just harm crops and fish farms. It also threatened the health of millions of people who use water supplied by the Thu Dau Mot and Tan Hiep water treatment plants. The intake systems of these plants are just downstream from the SMPF spill.
The disaster at SMPF is the largest pollution case so far in Binh Duong, a rapidly industrializing province north of HCM City.
Treating the polluted water has been a struggle for the two water treatment plants, which supply piped water to millions of people. Both plants had to double the quantity of chemicals they use to treat water after the incident.
“We can’t sleep because of the stink”
The spill is just a small part of a bigger problem, local people told Tuoi Tre Daily. Many said that black wastewater from the 230 hectare, 68,000 pig farm has long polluted the Ben Van creek and surrounding environment.
“The media reported one discharge of wastewater, but [SMPF] has been releasing wastewater into the creek for years,” local resident Nguyen Kim Tien told Tuoi Tre. “The company discharges untreated wastewater about once a week. When they do that, no one can sleep, it stinks so much.”
Nguyen Van Danh, chairman of Lai Hung Commune Farmer’s Association, said he has known for a long time that wastewater from the pig farm was being discharged directly into the stream, killing fish and plants.
“Many farmers gave up rice planting, and planted rubber trees instead, fearing that the pollution would contaminate their rice fields,” Danh said. “For 10 years now the commune authorities have urged district and provincial authorities to fine the company, but there has been no action”.
The hidden wastewater discharge system
On August 3rd, Tuoi Tre Daily reporters followed local residents to the mouth of a secret wastewater sewer leading from the pig farm to Ben Van creek. After a three-hour walk through rubber plantations, the local people showed reporters a stream of black water entering the creek from a pipe hidden in thick bushes. They said there were three such sewers from the farm to Ben Van stream.
Tran Van Manh, the chairman of Lai Hung Commune’s People’s Committee, said he also had been aware of the pollution since San Miguel moved into the area. He confirmed that villagers had complained to the Committee several times, accusing SMPF of discharging wastewater secretly at night or during heavy rain to avoid detection.
Nguyen Anh, head of nutrition at the San Miguel facility, told reporters the company had sent someone to check the sewer system that empties into Ben Van Creek. “I have issued instructions to close the sewer immediately,” he said. “I know the sewer they are talking about because I used to manage the husbandry section. It is located between the pig farm and the cassava farm.”
Anh insisted that he was not aware that residents and communal authorities had accused the company of secretly discharging wastewater into the stream. He added that the company has applied for approval to invest US$3 million for a wastewater treatment system, and hopes to break ground for the improvement in September.
“Nearly half of our total 230-hectare property is for pig farming, so bad smells are inevitable,” he said. “I have advised our director to follow the instructions of the concerned government agencies because the company was wrong.”
A pattern of negligence
Le Minh Chau, chief of the Binh Duong environmental police, said the July 25 spill was San Miguel’s fault. Its 7.7 hectare wastewater reservoir burst because it was not built properly.
Instead of just digging a giant hole as San Miguel had done, Chau explained, the law requires that wastewater ponds be lined with concrete to prevent the walls from breaking and to stop contaminants from seeping into the groundwater. Compounding the danger, SMPF’s wastewater treatment system was ineffective because at the time the system was checked, equipment didn’t work.
Tuoi Tre’s information about the hidden sewer in the upper part of Ben Van creek was news to Chau.
At the Ben Cat District office of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MONRE), staff were totaling up the damage to rubber, bamboo and fish and frog farming ponds from the spill in three villages -- Lai Hung, An Dien, and Phu An. Vo Thi Ngoc Hanh, provincial deputy director for MONRE, declared flatly that SMPF has not lived up to the commitments it had made in its environmental impact report.
The department tested river water near the site after the incident and found a concentration of organic substances of 13,190 milligrams per liter, nearly 300 times above allowed levels. Nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur and coliform bacteria also tested above permissable limits.
To Van Truong, former head of the Southern Irrigation Planning Institute, said the institute
had only detected slight pollution in the Thi Tinh River at the section near the Saigon River before the incident, with organic substances 1.3 times the allowed level. However, tests conducted by the local department of natural resources and environment showed the wastewater in the company’s storage reservoir did not confirm to national standards and had a very high degree of pollution.
Early in August, MONRE’s Binh Duong province office proposed a fine of VND106 million ($6,100) and VND1.2 billion ($69,700) in environmental protection fees for the spill.
Tran Thi Kim Van, deputy chairwoman of Binh Duong Province People’s Committee, wants SMPF to apologize to local residents. She has advised the company to work with local authorities to calculate the cost of the damage the spill has caused, for compensation purposes.
Provincial records show that San Miguel Pure Foods Vietnam employs around 800 workers, produces animal feed and manages a herd of around 68,000 pigs. About three million liters of wastewater each day have been discharged into the catchment pond. The company was listed among the worst 25 polluters in the province last year.
San Miguel Pure Foods Vietnam is a subsidiary of the San Miguel Corp., Southeast Asia’s largest food and drinks group. San Miguel Corp is the third-largest listed firm in the Philippines, with a market value of $4.7 billion.
SMPF’s big spill came less than a year after revelations that a big monosodium glutamate producer, Vedan, had for years been deliberately releasing untreated effluent into another HCM City area river. The Vedan outrage heightened consciousness about the need to police environmental impacts more aggressively. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has said Vietnam should strive for sustainable development that doesn’t harm the environment, and officials are stepping up regulatory enforcement.
VietNamNet/Tuoi Tre/Thanh Nien
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