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The Formosa Hà Tinh Toxic Spill

The 2016 toxic spill into the coastal waters of Central Vietnam was the worst environmental disaster in the nation’s peacetime history. More than 110 tonnes of fish carcasses were collected in the weeks following the release of untreated industrial waste water from the Formosa Ha Tinh Steel (FHS) complex in early April.

The livelihoods of thousands of fishermen and aquaculture farmers were severely affected, as were tourist operators. Beaches were only declared safe again for swimming in August. The ban on fishing within 20 NM of the shore remained in force. A full recovery of the marine environment will take years.

On June 30, FHS admitted responsibility for the spill, apologised, promised a full clean up and USD $500m in compensation. In July, the results of a government investigation, which included a team of international experts identified the exact causes of the incident. The company was found to have violated 53 regulations, the most serious of which was the use of ‘wet coking’, a process that creates large amounts of waste water.

The key decisions that led to the disaster were made years before the event itself, during the design phase of the plant. The refusal to build a storage dam created the need to discharge waste water into the sea, and a pipeline directly from the plant was constructed for this purpose. This in turn meant that the treatment plant became the critical line of defence against a toxic spill. This dependence was not adequately realised by FHS, so that contingency plans were not in place should the plant suffer a loss of power or go off line for other reasons. In the event, this is what happened.

The reason for approaching the incident in this manner is that it highlights the degree to which the spill was both predictable, and therefore preventable. Recognition of the risk of a toxic spill into the sea, and the severe consequences that would follow, plus an examination of the chain of events that could produce such a catastrophic outcome, would have exposed the critical vulnerability in the shape of the waste water treatment plant. Several years existed to find a solution to this problem before production came on stream. It is the creation of such opportunities, BEFORE a major disaster takes place, that is the main purpose behind ‘Avoiding Catastrophe’s methodology.

The above is taken from the introduction to Avoiding Catastrophe's case study on the Formosa Ha Tinh toxic spill. This incident is both highly instructive for the lessons that can be learnt from it, it also provides a useful backdrop for explaining how our approach can be applied in a practical context. This has three dimensions, all of which are covered in the study. They are -

How it could have been predicted

How it could have been prevented

How it could have been managed

FHS also forms the context Avoiding Catastrophe uses in its training modules. Some samples of these will be given in the posts to come. If you are interested in reading the full report, or discussing the training possibilities around this case study, then contact us at

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