Vietnam’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment has decided to carry out a comprehensive checkup of a Hong Kong-invested paper mill project in southern Vietnam, amid rising concerns that it may destroy a local river once commissioned.
Minister Tran Hong Ha said on Sunday that the inspection decision came after numerous media reports about the risk of pollution at the controversial facility, operated by Lee & Man Co. Ltd., a subsidiary of Hong Kong’s Lee & Man Paper.
Located by the Hau River in Hau Giang Province, the US$628.7 million paper mill poses a threat to the ecosystem, environment and particularly the waterway.
The paper making industry is regarded as a more reckless polluter than its mining counterpart due to the large number of chemicals involved in the production process.
The inspection decision, prepared by the Vietnam Environment Administration, is scheduled to be announced on June 30, and enacted the following day.
The checkup will focus on examining the plant’s compliance with environment protection law, according to Minister Ha.
The mill's wastewater treatment system. Photo: Tuoi Tre
The inspectors include officials from the ministry, the Vietnam Environment Administration, and a provincial environment and environmental police unit, as well as leading experts in wastewater treatment in the paper making industry.
The inspectors will be required to pay special attention to the company’s environmental impact assessment, wastewater treatment system, and response measures in case of environmental incidents, according to the minister.
The Lee & Man plant broke ground in August 2007 and was previously expected to begin operation just 14 months later.
However, production there was delayed for nearly a decade before the developer recently announced that the paper mill would begin a month-long trial run this July and launch full-scale activities in August.
Minister Ha said the result of the inspection will determine if the developer is allowed to stick to its schedule.
“Relevant individuals and organizations must be punished if any violations are found after the checkup,” he said.
“Following the inspection, the inspectors must report to the ministry whether the plant is allowed to enter its trial run.”
Checkup decision hailed
Prior to the inspection decision, the Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers (VASEP) had lodged a complaint with the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, along with Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, calling for careful consideration of the planned operation of the plant.
VASEP general secretary Truong Dinh Hoe welcomed the environment ministry’s move, while pointing out two things the inspection must focus on, namely the company’s environmental impact assessment report and its wastewater treatment system.
While any project is required to have its environmental impact assessed every two years as per Vietnamese law, the latest report on the Lee & Man paper mill was completed in 2008.
“The  report is outdated and does not fully reflect the current environmental situation,” Hoe said.
“It is crucial to ensure the wastewater treatment and dumping system of the mill work properly in order to avoid natural disasters in the Mekong Delta, considered Vietnam’s granary.”
A fish farming cage on Hau River. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Le Bao Ky, who runs a fish farming cage on the Hau River, said local farmers would be happy if the paper mill is not put into operation.
“Our lives rely on the river, so we will ‘die’ when the river is ‘killed’,” he told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper.
“If the plant is allowed to come on stream anyway, we hope its wastewater dumping will be closely supervised.”
Ky said local fish farmers had never been asked for their opinion about the construction of the paper mill, and “we only knew when the facility was near completion.”