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|Some businesses have been slated to move out of Hanoi for years, but are dragging their heels Photo: Dung Minh|
Days after Rang Dong Light Source and Vacuum Flask JSC’s factory in Thanh Xuan district burned to the ground at the initially estimated loss of VND150 billion ($6.5 million), residents in the area are still worried about toxic materials and chemicals, such as phosphorus, zinc powder, and mercury, being released into the environment to pose health hazards.
The fears are exacerbated by news of nearly 60 people being hospitalised with symptoms of allergic reactions and dizziness.
Last week, at the regular government press conference, Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Vo Tuan Nhan announced that 15.1-27.2 kilogrammes of mercury have been released into the air, based on research by local authorities.
“Fortunately, the amalgam chemical storage cabinet of the factory, where a huge volume of mercury was stored, was not reached by the fire. Only the mercury in the flashbulbs burnt in the flames was released into the environment,” said Nhan.
The test results of soil, water, and air samples by relevant agencies confirmed that the mercury content of most samples exceeded Vietnamese standards.
“The fire at Rang Dong was a chemical explosion, impacting human health to a medium level, but seriously damaging to assets and dispersing toxic chemicals into the air, which were then deposited into local water sources and flowed into the To Lich River,” said the deputy minister, who confirmed that people living in a 500-metre radius could be affected adversely by the pollution.
Pham Van Son, director of the Vietnam Environmental Incident Response Center, said that in addition to checking soil, water, and the surrounding air, people’s health should be closely monitored as signs of poisoning may take months to appear.
In order to evaluate the damage and the responsibilities of Rang Dong, Son said that it is necessary to compare and analyse data from before and after the fire.
The fire at Rang Dong has also raised an alarm about the factories operating in the centre of Hanoi and densely-populated areas, bringing up long-standing concerns about environmental safety and health hazards for residents living in the capital.
“Environmental safety is one of the most important factors of national security,” Son emphasised.
Evacuating residents around the Rang Dong factory is only a temporary solution, with the long-term plan to relocate industrial facilities from the city.
The factory has been on the government’s list of facilities to move out of the city for years, but showed no intention of doing so until the fire, and even now plans are uncertain.
According to a government proposal, Rang Dong was supposed to be relocated to Que Vo Industrial Zone (IZ) in the northern province of Bac Ninh, about an hour drive from Hanoi, to free up land for more fruitful endeavours.
In line with the regulations, Rang Dong can convert the land use purpose of the site in Thanh Xuan district through a joint venture or by establishing a new legal entity. However, so far, the company has not made plans to relocate and the spot in Que Vo IZ remains empty.
Rang Dong is one of hundreds of polluting facilities refusing to move out from the city despite the government’s decision, made four years ago. Decision No.130/QD-TTg was issued in 2015 outlining the schedule for the relocation of factories, hospitals, tertiary and vocational education institutions, and other facilities from the urban areas of Hanoi, with plans for the freed land plots. However, the implementation of this decision proceeded at a snail’s pace.
The following year, Hanoi’s People’s Committee confirmed the relocation of 117 facilities causing environmental pollution from 12 inner districts. Nevertheless, by last year only four facilities had been relocated, leaving more than a hundred operating in the capital.
In a similar case, in 2017, Thanh Xuan People’s Committee sent Document No.1399/UBND- TN&MT to Hanoi Department of Natural Resources and Environment about the production facilities which are causing pollution and need to be moved out of Hanoi.
This included Thang Long Tobacco Company under the management of Vietnam National Tobacco Corporation, which was guilty of causing significant pollution. Although documents regarding the relocation of this company have been issued, it remains in place, polluting the environment every day.
Very few plants have moved from the city so far. Responding to VIR’s queries about the delays, Troy Griffith, deputy managing director of Savills Vietnam, said that most of these businesses do not want to move out of big cities or leave the golden land plots they occupy, because they are well suited for business and transport.
“These facilities usually take up locations that could easily become hundred-million-dollar real estate projects in the future,” he explained.
Additionally, many of these businesses lack the requisite finances to upgrade to clean production technology or invest in wastewater and waste treatment facilities – not to mention developing a new facility.
On the other hand, Tran Ngoc Chinh, chairman of the Vietnam Urban Planning and Development Association, said that the long delays in performance have quickly broken the planning vision due to the increasing number of IZs. According to the development plan for Hanoi towards 2030 with vision until 2050, the capital will have 33 IZs and hi-tech zones, but the city has 38 IZs already. The rising number of IZs is also increasing the risk of environmental pollution.
The capital is surrounded by IZs. Specifically, the west of Hanoi still has Thuong Dinh; and the south has Vinh Tuy, Thanh Tri, and Phap Van IZs, while Nam Thang Long IZ is located in the northwest and Yen Vien IZ’s Gia Lam railroad factory and the other facilities are in the northeast.
All of these IZs are imposing a variety of environmental and health risks to the surrounding living areas that far exceed pollution indexes, particularly air and water pollution.
David McDonald MRICS AAIQS - General director at WT Partnership (Asia)
Industrial zones are possibly the highest risk areas for everyday workplace fires due to the nature of substances, chemicals, plant and equipment, and combustible materials kept within a usually large open space which has very little opportunity to contain a fire.
My observations on these facilities are that the risk mitigation plan and strategies are in place at the beginning of operations making the facility function effectively whilst precautions on fire hazards are fully implemented. The main risk comes from people who fail to adhere to the safety standards set out by either being lazy, uneducated or failure to maintain safety equipment.
Generally, as a Quantity Surveyor, we do not review projects to that level of detail. The risk mitigation strategy is usually applied by the safety officer of the factory in accordance with standards that comply with the PCCC approval process. In addition, I am not clear on the requirements of regulations and codes for storage of hazardous materials but the factories I have been involved in, have in principle, fundamental safeguards for the storage, use, and handling of hazardous materials in all their facilities and storage units within industrial zones. Continuous training of staff is essential for any business and fire safety training for industrial factory staff is imperative as everyone has a duty of care to safeguard not only their work colleagues but their employers’ premises.
I have not visited many IZ’s outsides of Vietnam but with most projects in South East Asia, I would take a stab that Singapore is the benchmark with possibly the same standards of approval but greater levels of staff training, inspection periods and general facility management.
I would say the most burning issue is for staff to be continuously trained and reminded of standards or risks that surround them on a daily basis. Strategies are implemented to prevent such catastrophes but people can at times be haphazard with such protocols which create increased risk. Most fires are down to human error or electrical issues.
When I employ new staff, the first thing I tell them is where the fire stairs and assembly point are. I explain to them what they should do if the fire alarm rings and where they need to go so that everyone can be accounted for.
1- Review the premises and carry out a full hazard analysis. This will describe the type of hazard and what needs to be done to either eliminate or reduce the effect of the hazard.
2- Fire prevention and emergency procedures implemented and manual provided to all staff.
3- Fire safety training for all staff on a regular basis, highlighting dangers and measures that should be taken to limit those dangers.
4- Implementing a regular housekeeping routine that eliminates dangers such as combustible dust, rubbish and any other hazards that may create a fire risk.
5- Inspect and maintain equipment and systems in accordance with manuals. Regular checkpoints on usage can eliminate dangers.
Stricter solutions needed
City dwellers are getting so used to the environmental pollution that they see it as part and parcel of living in a city. Located at the heart of Hai Ba Trung district’s most heavily populated area, Dong Xuan Knitting Sole Member LLC regularly emits black and white smoke, threatening the health of tens of thousands of people living in the area.
Furthermore, coal and smut from its garment manufacturing activities have induced symptoms of sinus irritation and cancer in locals. At many meetings with local authorities, the district’s citizens have repeatedly complained to about Dong Xuan’s manufacturing activities, but its operations have so far gone on undisturbed.
Last week, Hanoi Department of Natural Resources and Environment issued a document about the short-term plan of removing 26 polluting facilities including Dong Xuan to IZs farther from the capital.
The facilities include Road and Bridge Engineering and Mechanical JSC, 3-2 Auto Mechanic JSC, Hai Ha Confectionary JSC, and Habeco, among others.
Hanoi People’s Committee set aside 450 hectares of land in IZs as new locations for these facilities. The local authorities will apply sanctions and incentives to force them to move to IZs.
However, forcing the facilities to move out of the city will be difficult. Discussing the issue with VIR, Dao Ngoc Nghiem, deputy chairman of the Hanoi Urban Planning and Development Association, said that the biggest issue is finding a way to deal with the old facilities left behind by the investors.
“Despite the plan of developing these plots into public areas and green spaces, policies to transfer the lands to Hanoi People’s Committee have yet to be issued,” said Nghiem. “While this is necessary, it is more important to first deal with factories that do not wish to move out of Hanoi.”