When local press gathered for a meeting to announce the upcoming wine and grape festival in the south-central province of Ninh Thuan on Wednesday, most of the questions raised steered away from berries and vintage and moved towards the subject of a controversial steel project in the province.
Ninh Thuan, located 350km northeast of Ho Chi Minh City, is poised to hold its annual three-day festival on September 29, but excitement for the event is quickly becoming overshadowed by the provincial administration’s in-principle approval of a massive steelmaking complex.
Though fresh water is a luxury in some Ninh Thuan localities, plans to construct an enormous steel mill are being mulled over by the provincial administration.
The US$10.6 billion steelmaking project, proposed by local corrugated iron sheet maker Hoa Sen Group, has construction scheduled to last until sometime between 2025 and 2030 at a coastal area in the province.
The Chinese equipment and technology expected to be used in the megaproject are amongst the chief concerns of locals worried over the potential environmental impacts.
The frenzy left the Ninh Thuan administration forced to defend its approval for the project in Wednesday’s media announcement, rather than share the features of the upcoming grape festival.
‘Formosa case is not typical for the steel industry’
At Wednesday’s meeting, Pham Van Hau, the province’s chairman, stood up and addressed the media’s questions.
Asked why Ninh Thuan is so determined to have a steel project developed in its province, Hau said the project is not an original idea of Hoa Sen Group, but “was prepared based on a suspended project from 2008.”
That year, Ninh Thuan licensed a joint venture between Vinashin, a loss-making Vietnamese shipbuilder, and Malaysia’s Lion Group to develop a steel complex in Ca Na Commune, Thuan Nam District.
Amidst financial problems, the Malaysian company later withdrew from the project and the provincial administration eventually revoked the license in 2011.
Hoa Sen Group’s proposed the development of a new project at the exact location that had been zoned for the Vinashin – Lion Group joint venture.
The Ninh Thuan deputy chairman also cited Deputy Prime Minister Trinh Dinh Dung’s statement that people should not use the environmental disaster caused by Formosa Plastics Group’s steel project in the north-central province of Ha Tinh as a way to generalize that the steel industry is now associated with pollution.
“What matters is whether or not we are able to supervise the environmental technology, and whether the developer is willing to cover the massive environmental protection expenses,” he said.
Not trade environment for budget collection
Hau underlined that the Ninh Thuan administration has “a unanimous agreement” to grant the in-principle approval for Hoa Sen Group to carry out the project.
Addressing concern over the Chinese technology that could possibly be deployed at the steel mill, Hau said it is unfair to comment while the developer has yet to buy any piece of equipment or technology.
“The provincial administration will only allow the developer to use modern equipment and technology, with a proper regard to environmental protection,” he said.
“The developer has also promised to fully publicize all information regarding their contractor and technology selection for the project.”
The province’s deputy chairman also rejected allegations that Ninh Thuan is trying to back the steel project as a means to make up for its poor budget collection.
“The Hoa Sen Group’s proposal is based on the planning of the steel industry, which has been defended by local experts and state agencies,” he said.
“We never seek a bigger budget at the cost of the environment.”
It has previously been discovered that the plan to develop a steel mill in Ninh Thuan goes against all planning at all levels, from the industry to the region and province.
The controversial project is not included in any of the planning by the Vietnamese steel industry; the industrial and commercial development planning for the north-central and central coastal regions; the planning for the eco-social development of Ninh Thuan by 2020.