Villagers sitting on a ticking pollution time bomb

Nguyen Chi Nghia from Phuong Ngan Village washes his hands with water taken from a local well, which he says smells of pesticides. — VNS Photo Phuoc Buu

by Phuoc Buu

QUANG TRI (VNS) — A sudden downpour on a sunny spring day sends Nguyen Mot scurrying into his house.

But he is not trying to escape the rain. He darts about, shutting all the doors and windows in a vain bid to keep out the noxious odour that comes up with vapour sent up by the sudden rain.

“Pesticides,” he says, ruefully.

Mot is a resident of Trieu Phong District in the central province of Quang Tri.

“We have endured this for decades. The odour is quite light now, but it gets much stronger on hot summer days.

“Higher temperatures and sudden showers create more vapour, which means much stronger smells.”

Explaining the stink, he says: “A lot of unused pesticides left over in the local warehouse were buried in a landfill near here in Phuong Ngan Village, which is in the district’s Trieu Long Commune.

Mot, 72, was deputy chairman of the former Bac Long agricultural co-operative, which owned the warehouse used to store extremely toxic pesticides including D666, Wonfatox, Basagran, DDT, Palisade and Basudin.

Quang Tri was hit the hardest by American bombs during the war. Agriculture was the province’s sole post-war recovery hope, and pesticides were considered a ‘magic’ solution to boost rice productivity.

“A large quantity of pesticides was gathered in the warehouse between 1979 and 1995,” Mot says. “During the subsidy period, pesticides were supplied to us for every crop, even when we did not need any.

“This piled up in the warehouse. At one time, we had to purchase two big 1,000 litre tanks to store liquid Wonfatox.

“The tanks leaked and the toxins were absorbed by the land for many years before the co-operative was closed in 1995. Heavy floods in 1985 and 1993 soaked the solid pesticides and these dissolved into the land as well.”

Sighing, he added: “The land around here has absorbed the toxins for decades and, of course, underground water has been contaminated.”

Nguyen Chi Nghia, whose house bordered the warehouse and the landfill site in 1995, affirmed Mot’s account. “I used to smell it every day. Our well, about 20m from the warehouse got contaminated as well. I had to move my family to another plot in 1991.”

In Hai Lang District, resident Nguyen Thanh Anh of Quy Thien Village in Hai Quy Commune, tells a similar story.

His house is close to the old warehouse of the former Quyet Tien agricultural co-operative.

“I smell the pesticides late at night and early in the morning. We have to take water from a well far from home for daily use.”

Villagers in the districts of Vinh Linh, Gio Linh, Cam Lo, Huong Hoa, Trieu Phong, Hai Lang, and Dong Ha Township are all experiencing the same difficulties and do not know how the situation is going to improve.

Severely polluted

A report by the province’s Department of Environment Protection says there are a total of 61 contaminated sites in the province, including nine examined a decade ago and 52 found under a major inspection in 2013.

According to department director Vo Van Dung, five of the nine sites have been treated to reduce contamination levels by an agency under the Ministry of Defense.

“Land and water samples taken from the sites indicated average pesticide contamination hundreds of times over the allowed level.”

Residents say the department failed to measure the specific area of contaminated sites as well as show locals the health hazards of pesticide pollution.

“We found it difficult to identify the exact location of the sites as the warehouses had been ruined for decades,” Dung admitted.

“I had joined a field trip by the local Department of Sciences and Technology in 2001 to Vinh Linh District and was told that there was a landfill with 10 tonnes of pesticide. But we couldn’t identify it in 2013 when we went there.

Stressing the danger involved, Dung said: “Fatalities are possible when residents build houses, cultivate vegetables or dig wells on the site. A family in the district dug a well on such a site and lost three members to cancer.”

Basing on the department’s report, provincial People’s Committee last October declared 52 new contaminated sites and sent a request to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment for decontamination assistance.

On January 22, the Ministry’s Viet Nam Environment Administration conducted a 10-day field study trip covering 15 of the 52 sites assessed as “critically polluted”.

However, nothing has been said since about any follow up action. Residents have no idea about the scale of treatment required, the funds involved or the time it would take.

“The province is among the poorest in the country and we rely heavily on the Ministry’s assistance. We even struggle to meet the regulated 40 per cent of contingency cost of any treatment project,” Dung said.

“All we can do with the situation now is to warn residents not to use water, plant vegetables, build houses or live near the contaminated sites.”

Dung said his department has informed district authorities about the dangers involved.

But for residents living on or near the contaminated sites, this is scant comfort.

Mot and Nghia say almost all the village residents have to use water taken from wells for their daily needs.

“Clean water supply has yet to reach us. We try to manage by buying bottled water for drinking,” says Mot.

Ironically, the bottled water they use is produced in the commune itself by treating well water using very “basic techniques”. This is a household business.

Anh of Quy Thien Village, one of the 15 sites ranked critically polluted, says most families rely on water taken from local wells.

“We don’t feel safe, but clean water supply is not connected to the village, and we have 20 people with cancer.”

An official of Trieu Long Commune, who does not want to be named, says there are about 30 people suffering from cancer in the commune.

“We are not sure if the pesticide pollution has caused cancer. No health authority has come here to check.”

Dung admitted his department is dealing with the problem on its own, with no contact with the local Department of Health.

And the warning is yet to reach all residents in the contaminated sites.

“Only some villages in Vinh Linh District have received our warning. Other districts have not informed their residents about the hazards,” said department employee Tran Tien Long, who is a liaison officer for matters related to the pesticide pollution.

Mot says he does not know how dangerous the pollution is, but the odour itself is scary enough, and he and other villagers are dreading the onset of summer. — VNS

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