People living near a Hong Kong-invested paper plant in the southern Vietnamese province of Hau Giang are losing sleep over the facility, literally, shortly after authorities allowed it to resume on a trial basis earlier this month.
The Lee & Man mill, a US$1.2 billion project developed by Hong Kong’s Lee & Man Paper, began running on test in December 2016, but was asked to cease operations just one month later for inspections to be carried out on its ability to meet environmental safety standards.
The plant, located in Mai Dam Town, Chau Thanh District, obtained permission for another six-month test run beginning on March 7.
Shortly after, a nightmare began to unfold for local residents.
Sleeping with face masks
For residents who live only 200m away from the Lee & Man mill, daily life has become a challenge, thanks to the facility’s unbearable pollution.
“We suffer from the daily nuisance of coal dust, 24/7 noise from running machines, and the filthy smell from the plant,” one local told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper.
The plant’s wastewater treatment system is connected with the Hau (Back) River, a main waterway in the Mekong Delta and an important water source for local households.
“We are also extremely worried about the water quality these days,” the local added.
Pham Thi Que Khau, a 64-year-old resident, compared the smell from the paper mill to a stinking toilet.
“Such a nasty smell has enveloped the whole residential area and we just can’t stand it anymore,” Khau lamented.
Tran Thi Thuy Hong, a resident living opposite the riverbank from the plant, said the foul smell is omnipresent, even when her doors and windows are shut.
“We have to wear face masks even when we are sleeping,” she said.
Another local, Tran Thi Dung, illustrated how polluted the environment is by quickly sweeping the ceiling of her house and drawing attention to a thick layer of black coal dusts.
“How can I not worry when I have to inhale these toxic substances on a daily basis?” she said.
Dung used to run a fish farm near the plant, raking in some VND100 million (US$4,464) per crop.
However, amidst fears that pollution from the mill might contaminate her farm, she has been forced to delay her new crop.
Local residents have called on authorities to help find a solution to the pollution caused by the Hong Kong plant.
“They have repeatedly promised to resolve the problem, but they haven’t followed through,” Ngo Mong Thu, a local, said.
“So far, they have made eight different promises and we have yet to see changes.”
Thu said local residents may have to resort to the last option – relocating to somewhere else to escape the contamination.
‘Everything is good’
Tran Phong, head of the Southern Environment Administration under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, told Tuoi Tre on Wednesday that the plant had been permitted to resume its trial run, subject to close supervision by the ministry and local authorities.
Meanwhile, Tong Hoang Khoi, chairman of Chau Thanh District, confirmed to Tuoi Tre that he has received numerous pollution complaints from residents affected by the paper mill.
Some district officials are on the supervision team, alongside authorities from the environment ministry, Khoi said, though he added that the district administration had never been briefed on any inspection results.
In the meantime, Nguyen Van Tuan, deputy chairman of the Hau Giang administration, said the provincial environment department and the General Department of Environment will decide whether the plant should be allowed to be officially commissioned after the six-month trial run.
Tuan admitted that the facility had produced a foul smell at the early stage of the test run, “but the problem has been fixed.”
Tuan said the province has inspected the plant, insisting that the developer follow requirements by the General Department of Environment.
“They have fulfilled all our requests and everything is good,” Tuan underlined.
Attempts by Tuoi Tre to contact a Lee & Man representative were in vain.