Vietnam will operate the country's first alumina plant on a trial basis this June, instead of April as initially planned, a senior plant official said.
Tran Duong Le, deputy director of the Lam Dong bauxite-aluminum complex's management, said the Tan Rai alumina plant in the Central Highlands province of Lam Dong will be officially put on a trial run in middle this year before moving into full production.
In early December 2011, alumina production was delayed until the first quarter of 2012 from an earlier target for the end of 2011 after rains held up construction.
The Tan Rai refinery is designed to have an annual production capacity of 600,000 tons of alumina, a white powder made from bauxite ore that is used to produce aluminum.
The US$700-million project is invested in by the state-owned mining group Vinacomin under the Ministry of Industry and Trade.
It has for long been a topic of controversy in Vietnam, with protesters claiming the project poses safety and environmental threats. The controversy heated up further after an accident in Hungary.
On October 4, 2010, a reservoir containing toxic waste burst at an alumina plant near Ajka, Hungary sending a wave of red sludge into the surrounding area, killing nine people and injuring 150 more. The sludge was identified as a byproduct of refining bauxite into alumina, the raw material used in manufacturing aluminum.
The incident added further fuel to those opposing Vietnam's first alumina project.
The Ministry of Industry and Trade and Vinacomin defended the project's safety features, touting the multi-chamber design of its toxic sludge reservoir.
According to the plant's management, the plant is designed with eight chambers to contain red sludge and a dam to prevent possible spill.
However, last September, inspectors from the Lam Dong Province's Department of Natural Resources and Environment found that chemical substances had leaked from the Tan Rai plant in Bao Lam District.
Rains washed the substances into the plant's drainage facility before running into a large fish pond owned by some local residents.
Tests showed the lake's water had excessive pH content, the inspectors said.
Inspections have been carried out since August after local people lodged complaints with the Bao Lam District authorities that fish had died in massive numbers in the lake because of water pollution.
The lake also supplied water for tea and coffee farms for some households and another company in the area.
Duong Van Hoa, deputy general director of Vinacomin, blamed workers' carelessness for the incident.
According to Hoa, neglectful workers left the sacks containing sodium hydroxide outdoor and when it rained, rains washed away the substance.
Following the incident, Deputy Prime Minister Hoang Trung Hai ordered Vinacomin to take precautionary measures to prevent similar incidents in the future.
The Ministry of Industry and Trade also asked the group to draft plans to tackle accidents in case of chemical leakages at the project.
Vinacomin has also been developing another alumina project in Dak Nong Province, which neighbors Lam Dong. The Nhan Co project has a projected initial annual output of 600,000 tons of alumina.