Toxic Spill Causes Bauxite Rethink

A Hungarian accident prompts a new look at bauxite mining in Vietnam.
2010-10-29
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Vietnam's Central Highlands are home to large deposits of bauxite reserves.
Vietnam's Central Highlands are home to large deposits of bauxite reserves.
RFA

Vietnam's lawmakers have joined ranks with environmentalists and others in calling for a review of bauxite mine operations in the country following a recent toxic spill in Europe, despite a recent crackdown on the industry’s critics.

The representatives called on the government to scale back or suspend bauxite mining in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, arguing that harmful side effects and potential dangers would outweigh any profits exploration might bring.

National Assembly representative of Langson province professor Nguyen Minh Thuyet, a long-time opponent of bauxite mine explorations, said he highlighted his position for several reasons at the fifth meeting of the 12th session of the National Assembly which opened in Hanoi on Oct. 20.

“First there may not be economic advantages. Second, there will be an environmental tragedy; and third, there will be national security problems,” he said.

“The red mud tragedy has been an unfortunate event for Hungary. It can serve as a timely and serious warning for Vietnam.”

A spill in Hungary burst through the containment reservoir of an alumina plant on Oct. 4 and flooded local villages with a high alkalinity “red mud” which killed dozens of people and injured over 150.

Nguyen said if Hungary, which possesses “high technology and sophisticated industrial techniques,” was unable to prevent such a catastrophe, Vietnam faces an even greater danger.

“The understanding of labor principles of our laborers is still very poor; moreover, the terrain in our Western Highland region … experiences torrential rains," he said.

“Therefore, if the exploration of bauxite mines in the Western Highland is permitted, a red mud tragedy can occur very easily, not to mention the fact that our dams may be broken.”

Exercising patience

Professor Duong Trung Quoc, representative of Dongnai province, also expressed his opposition to bauxite mining in a resolution to the chairman of the National Assembly in the one-party communist state.

“The event of the broken dam and red mud slide in Hungary has naturally caused anxiety in our public opinion. This anxiety is legitimate,” he said.

“As the top agency of supervision, the National Assembly should exercise its constant and permanent supervision of this project and express an appropriate attitude.”

Duong's concerns amid the Hungarian tragedy have led to permanent government monitoring of mines.

He said that in reply to his letter, the chairman of the National Assembly said the Committee of Natural Resources and Environments had been assigned to permanently monitor bauxite exploration.

But he called on the National Assembly to do more by placing the issue on its debate agenda and releasing findings in the form of a special government report.

“First, this can pacify public opinion. Second, with a careful review of the issue, we are more likely to avoid a possible future tragedy,” he said.

“We are waiting for the moves to be made by the National Assembly in the near future.”

Duong said that Vietnam must wait until it has developed the necessary technology to effectively exploit its bauxite reserves.

“I don’t agree with the idea that when we have a certain natural resource, we need to explore it immediately. That’s a form of waste,” he said.

“I am particularly interested in when to explore it and how to explore it with the utmost safety and benefits.”

Renewed efforts

Shawn McHale, director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at George Washington University, said that Vietnamese officials and members of the public have felt bolstered in their opposition to the mining due to the involvement of Chinese companies they see as stealing jobs and resources.

“And so an issue which usually the Vietnamese don’t take all that much concern about—an environmental issue—all of a sudden became very politicized,” McHale said.

“The other thing that happened was that Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap … came out against bauxite mining,” he said.

Bauxite mining drew national attention last year when war hero Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap wrote an open letter to the government expressing his opposition. Giap’s letter unleashed a flood of criticism from scientists, activists, and legislators concerned with the potential environmental impact of the mines.

Critics collected thousands of signatures from Vietnamese intellectuals at home and overseas to protest the mines in Central Highlands.

In response to the opposition, the Communist Party began to crack down on activists, interrogating and searching the home of academic Nguyen Hue Chi in Jan. 13, and arresting 55-year-old mathematics professor Pham Minh Hoang on Aug. 13 for their support of protests against the mining.

Several opposition websites from both inside and outside of Vietnam were also hacked into and disabled earlier this year by unknown assailants, though many administrators suggest the government may have been behind the attacks.

Before his interrogation, Nguyen Hue Chi ran one of the hacked websites, which had taken raised security and environmental issues in bauxite mines run by the Chinese state aluminum company Chalco in central Vietnam.

Chalco has opened two bauxite-mining and -processing plants in central Vietnam in the last two years with four more under consideration. A number of foreign investors, including those from China, Australia, and Russia are in bids to establish joint ventures with Vietnam to further explore the country's bauxite reserves.

But McHale said that while the government was initially successful in silencing critics, the disaster in Hungary has brought the issue back to the forefront of public debate.

“There are people in Vietnam who clearly are opposed to it, mainly for political reasons, but there are some who are seriously concerned about it for environmental reasons,” he said.

McHale added that, despite the earlier crackdown, representatives to the National Assembly may be willing to speak out about the issue because of a sense of duty to the people and their country.

“Although the vast majority of people in the National Assembly are actually Communist Party members, they see themselves as no longer being a rubber stamp. They see themselves as being able to raise criticisms if they think something is against the national interests,” he said.

“There is a developing environmental sensibility on the part of some people, particularly intellectuals … but they are also, of course, a very nationalistic people. They don’t like the idea of Chinese being involved.”

Major policy

Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has called bauxite mining “a major policy of the party and the state.”

The government’s master plan calls for investments of around U.S. $15 billion by 2025 to tap Vietnam’s rich bauxite reserves, estimated to be the third-largest in the world.

Bauxite is considered the most important aluminum ore and is generally strip-mined.

Most residents say they expect the mine to provide badly needed jobs, as Vietnam's economy slows sharply as a result of the worldwide slowdown.

The state-run Vietnamese company Vinacomin (Vietnam National Coal and Mineral Industries Group) has begun building an aluminum factory and is preparing for major mining operations in Lam Dong and Dac Nong provinces.

Vinacomin is aiming for annual aluminum production of 4.8 million to 6.6 million tons by 2015, state media have reported.

But former deputy minister of environment professor Dang Hung Vo said that the socioeconomic and environmental effects of bauxite mining in Vietnam must be studied carefully.

“If we see the profits are greater than the losses, we should do it. But … if the profits are less than the expenses, [we] should not do it. After considering all the angles, [we opponents] think that the mining of bauxite in Vietnam should not continue at this time,” he said.

“Our opinion is to wait. Wait for the future, wait for cleaner industry, wait for future generations to mine, and [they] will get more profit than [we are] realizing now.”

Dang said that stopping bauxite mining in Vietnam would not damage the development of the country, but that if the mining continues, Vietnamese society and the environment could face a disaster, which he said would seriously affect the economy.

“If the [mining] management says, ‘We confirm that this is nearly perfectly safe. We confirm that this has been studied very thoroughly’—well, just look at what happened in Hungary,” he said.

“No scientists or executives would ever say that the ground containment barriers for red mud might fail. Everyone would say it’s impossible for that to happen.”

Originally reported by Do Hieu and Nam Nguyen for RFA's Vietnamese service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

CH. 1: MANDARIN | CANTONESE

CH. 2: VIETNAMESE | BURMESE | KOREAN

CH. 3: KHMER | LAO | UYGHUR

CH. 4: TIBETAN

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