Pollution From Copper Mining in Northern Laos Destroying Local Livelihoods

laos-copper-07252015.jpg Mining brings money into Laos, but at great cost to the environment.

A company operating a copper mine in northern Laos’ Oudomxay province is polluting the local environment and destroying the livelihoods of residents, according to villagers, who have called for officials to investigate the firm.

A resident of Sawang village, in Oudomxay’s Namo district, told RFA’s Lao Service that domestic firm CNP Exploration Mining and Import-Exports Company had been digging for copper in the area, ruining the local water.

“Villagers in the district are suffering because the … company mining copper is creating runoff in the water, making it dirty and muddy—villagers cannot use it,” the resident said, speaking to RFA on condition of anonymity.

“No fish can be found, the company is cutting all of the big trees in the area, and erosion is destroying local stream banks,” he said.

“I would like the relevant provincial officials to investigate this issue.”

According to an official report detailing mine operations in Oudomxay between 2013 and 2014, provincial authorities granted CNP a 3-square-kilometer (1 square mile) concession to mine zinc in Namo.

Houmpheng Mingboupha, director general of the Oudomxay Energy and Mines Department, told RFA that there are no known deposits of copper in Namo.

“There are no copper mining operations in the district yet, but the government has allowed [CNP] to carry out a survey in the area since 2013,” he said.

“The company is mining for zinc.”

According to CNP’s website, the company was granted a “prospecting and exploration” license for three mining projects related to copper, iron and zinc in Oudomxay province in 2004.

In 2011, CNP finished its exploration phase and signed a contract with the Lao government to build a “refinery and factory,” the site says.

But a local official, who also declined to provide his name, confirmed reports that CNP was mining copper and cutting area timber, and said the firm was also operating far beyond its concession boundaries.

“The company isn’t digging for zinc, but copper instead,” the official said.

“Its operations are not limited 3 square kilometers, it’s working an area of 40 square kilometers (15.5 square miles), and the large trees that had covered three local mountains have been cut down.”

The official said CNP had begun mining in Namo in 2008 based on a four-year contract, but was continuing to operate, despite having surpassed the length of the agreement. It was unclear whether the contract had been extended.

“Normally, the concession contract would have expired … but the company has not stopped its operations,” he said.

Sand and soil

Additionally, residents of Oudomxay’s La district told RFA that sand and soil excavation by Chinese firm Sheng Chang since 2008 had led to dangerous levels of subsidence and water pollution in the region.

“Excavating sand and stone in La district by blasting the mountainside has led to negative impacts and soil erosion,” one villager said.

According to the villager, Sheng Chang has been blasting in an area of 7 square kilometers (2.7 square miles) as part of a concession to deliver around 900 cubic meters (31,780 cubic feet) of stone and sand directly to China via a small checkpoint on the border.

No officials have been monitoring the deliveries to determine whether the company has also been sending valuable minerals to China, he added.

An official from the provincial Natural Resource and Environment Department confirmed to RFA that waterways near Sheng Chang’s concession site had become inundated with silt, and that “villagers cannot use the water” because it turns red during the rainy season.

Mining sector

Mining is a key source of revenue for land-locked Laos. Copper is the most commonly mined commodity in the country, followed by iron ore and gold.

In December 2013, the Lao government announced plans to revise its mining policy “with the aim to generate more revenue from mine concession projects,” according to a report by the official Vientiane Times.

The move came “after the government has learnt that Laos has collected unreasonably little from many mining projects it has previously granted concessions to investors for,” the newspaper said at the time.

Amid efforts to draw profit from the extraction of its mineral resources, impoverished Laos has occasionally turned a blind eye towards mining firms that pollute the environment, according to watchdogs.

In June 2013, an environmental group told RFA that the Australian-owned Phu Kam copper and gold mine, located 100 kilometers (60 miles) northeast of the Lao capital Vientiane, had been polluting a nearby river with toxic chemicals, especially during the rainy season.

But environmental officials at the mine said that based on villagers' complaints, they had jointly monitored the water quality of the Nam Mo River with the Lao authorities and found it was within a "standard" level.

According to the environmental group, which spoke on condition of anonymity, local authorities were aware of the problem but had looked the other way.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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