An explosion has occurred at Taiwanese-owned Formosa Plastics Group’s steel mill in central Vietnam’s Ha Tinh province, one day after the facility came online for the first time since causing a catastrophic toxic waste spill in April 2016.
The official Tuoi Tre News quoted vice-chairman of the Provincial People’s Committee Duong Tat Thang as saying the incident occurred at around 9:00 p.m. on Tuesday when congestion in the dust filter system of a lime kiln at the steel mill led to an increase in pressure, causing the blast.
“The incident didn’t result in any casualties and is not related to the operation of the blast furnace,” Thang said.
Tuoi Tre cited “terrified witnesses” who said they heard a loud noise and saw a large volume of smoke.
Reuters quoted Chang Fu-ning, an executive vice president of Formosa Ha Tinh Steel, as saying the explosion at the mill in the Vung Ang Economic Zone, in Ha Tinh’s Ky Anh district, was caused by the combustion of fine dust particles in the air as a result of an equipment malfunction.
“There was no fire, damage or casualties as a result,” he said, adding that test-runs are ongoing.
A statement from the Ha Tinh provincial government said Formosa had confirmed it would fix the problem and check equipment to ensure a safe test run within 15 days, Reuters reported.
The U.S. $11 billion steel plant began a six-month test-run on its No. 1 blast furnace and auxiliary facilities Monday after the government said Formosa had effectively rectified an April 2016 toxic waste spill that killed an estimated 115 tons of fish and left fishermen jobless in four coastal provinces.
The environment ministry last month cleared Formosa to start testing its steel mill after conducting a three-day inspection of the plant and concluding that Formosa had addressed 52 out of 53 operating violations that led to the spill, polluting more than 200 kilometers (125 miles) of Vietnam’s coastline.
Formosa has voluntarily paid U.S. $500 million to clean up and compensate coastal residents affected by the spill, but slow and uneven payout of the funds by the Vietnamese government has prompted protests that continue to be held more than a year later.
Environmental activist Nguyen Chi Tuyen told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that residents are even more concerned over Formosa’s operations after Tuesday’s blast, and want the company out of Vietnam.
“The state says [the blast was not a problem] because it is still determined to produce steel,” he said.
“I expect Formosa will create [environmental] problems, because the company uses outdated technology that is typically associated with risks and hazards … [Saying they] operate and produce steel safely does not mean they will be environmentally friendly.”
Earlier this month, after Formosa received approval to start test runs of its blast furnace, residents of Ky Anh told RFA that the government was not acting in the interest of the people and expressed frustration that their concerns are not being taken into consideration.
They said few people believe Formosa had addressed the problems that led to last year’s spill.
Several members of the Catholic clergy and other activists have faced harassment and arrest by authorities for speaking out against Formosa and the waste spill in recent months.
On May 15, authorities detained activist Hoang Duc Binh, 34, for “opposing officers on duty” and “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe on the interests of the state” under Articles 257 and 258 of Vietnam’s penal code after he organized anti-Formosa protests. The activist will be held for 90 days.
Binh’s arrest drew condemnation Tuesday from local activists, as well as from international rights groups.
Phil Roberston, New York-based Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director, told RFA that the government should be investigating Formosa instead of investigating the people who are demanding it take action against the company.
“What we have seen is a greater level of oppression coming against those activists who are demanding that Formosa take responsibility,” he said.
“That is unfortunate because what it shows is that the government is more concerned about trying to control its people and to repress their freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful public assembly than it is about making a foreign company that was completely irresponsible and caused massive destruction to the environment … accountable.”
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by An Nguyen. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.