The operators of a Chinese-owned paper mill whose wastewater discharges into a nearby stream have killed fish and cows in Sepon district of southern Laos' Savannakhet province have asked local authorities for more time to eliminate foul odors that are making local residents sick.
The smell of the polluted water has spread to many villages within a five to seven square kilometers of the plant owned by China’s Sun Paper Group, headquartered in eastern China’s Shandong province, said an official at Sepon’s Office of Natural Resources and Environment, who declined to be named.
“In particular, Vongvilay and Keang Houapa villages and the campus of Sepon Technical College have been seriously affected by it,” he told RFA’s Lao Service.
“Up to now, the plant is still producing bad odors that irritate the noses of people in the mornings and evenings, and some days it lasts until midnight,” he said
“People living near the plant have complained about how the problem has not been resolved,” the official said. “Since May, it [the mill] has produced such bad odors that students have been getting sick and are vomiting.”
The plant is running a pilot test of its operations from May to August, he added.
A villager who lives near the Sepon market and has been affected by the bad smell was quoted by Sepon TV as saying: “Around 8 p.m. last night, it smelled bad. I would like to know how it can be managed because it is harmful to people’s health.”
The owners of the plant agreed to mitigate the foul odors within 15 days starting from July 7 during a meeting the previous day with district and provincial officials.
“After the July 6 meeting, they [the plant operators] requested 15 days to resolve the problem,” Sepon district governor Vongxay Sayachack told RFA on July 7. “District and provincial officials agreed that within 15 days the plant must find a solution. If the bad smell cannot be eliminated, it must at least be reduced.”
If the plant fails to resolve the problem within 15 days, we will ask central government authorities to consider taking legal action against the plant, he said.
“Now we are closely monitoring the situation and will follow up and inform them if the bad smell continues” he added.
‘Afraid that people will die’
This is the second time that Sun Paper has asked local authorities for time to address the problem.
After a June 8 meeting with villagers and officials, mill operators pledged to completely resolve it within 10 days starting from June 9, but failed to do so.
According to the district official, the mill operator must manage the plant’s waste byproducts in a safe manner, establish technical standards for management, and allow relevant district officials to inspect and investigate at any time to ensure that the operation is not generating pollution harmful to people and the environment.
On May 10, the plant released wastewater into Sepon’s Houaykalong stream, killing fish, other aquatic animals, and more than 30 cows, sources said.
“They released the wastewater into the stream, and it caused fish and frogs to die, a resident of the district’s Manjee village where the plant is located told RFA on May 12.
“Cows that drank the water also died,” said the villager who declined to be named. “This stream is a branch of the Sebangfai River, and I’m afraid that people will die [from the pollution].”
The waterway is one of the major tributaries of the Mekong River and flows through both Savannakhet and Khammouane provinces.
An official from Savannakhet’s Natural Resources and Environment Department sent a water sample from the stream to be tested at a lab in Laos' capital Vientiane to identify the contaminant, but the results have not yet been released.
As the industrial sector develops in Laos, livestock deaths are increasingly being reported due to water contaminated by run-off from factory waste or from herbicides and pesticides used on plantation fields, sources in the country say.
Chemical runoff from plants is believed to have killed more than 40 cows in Ban Xoc Noi village in Xaysetha district in Vientiane prefecture in May. Another 81 died in April in the district’s Ban Na Biane and Ban Phon Thong villages.
In January, a report by the NGO Lao Upland Rural Advisory Service (LURAS) indicated widespread pesticide and herbicide pollution in northeastern Laos’ Xiengkhouang province, with preliminary tests showing traces of the contaminants in the blood of 96 percent of the province's residents.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.