Lawmaker calls for parliamentary oversight of bauxite projects

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National Assembly involvement a must in wake of Hungarian disaster, says a prominent legislator

A local man looks at his garden in the sludge-flooded town of Devecser, 150 km (93 miles) west of the Hungarian capital Budapest October 8. An outspoken Vietnamese legislator has urged the National Assembly, the country's legislative body, to address mounting public concern about a similar catastrophe in Vietnam.

The National Assembly cannot stand outside the ongoing scrutiny of two major bauxite projects in the wake of the recent disastrous toxic spill in Hungary, a lawmaker said.

The parliament's involvement is indispensable for providing reassurance to the people of its oversight, he added.

In a letter sent to the National Assembly, which opened its biannual plenary session on Wednesday (October 20), legislator Duong Trung Quoc urged Chairman Nguyen Phu Trong to expressly address mounting public concern over a possible Hungary-like sludge flood which has left a trail of ruin in Europe.

"To this date, the fact that the red sludge spill has caused environmental catastrophe in Hungary and fueled fears in many other European countries is [also] a real source of concern for Vietnamese people," Quoc wrote in the letter, obtained Wednesday by Thanh Nien Weekly.

On Tuesday, the Hungarian parliament voted to maintain a state of emergency until December 31 in three counties hit by the deadly toxic spill two weeks ago, according to an official notice in the state gazette. Hungary originally declared the state of emergency on October 5, a day after a torrent of toxic sludge from an alumina plant tore through three villages 160 kilometers (100 miles) west of Budapest. The death toll from what officials described as Hungary's worst-ever chemical accident has since risen to nine with 150 people injured.

The Vietnamese government acknowledged last week that the Hungarian catastrophe should serve as a serious warning for the country, which is also developing two bauxite mining and processing complexes in the Central Highlands region. The first project in Lam Dong Province is slated for completion by the end of this year and construction at the second project in Dak Nong Province began in March.

Also last week, the Ministry of Industry and Trade has ordered the state-run Vietnam National Coal-Mineral Industries Group, or Vinacomin, to review the design of storage facilities for sludge residue from the two bauxite projects. The sludge is a byproduct of refining bauxite into alumina, the basic material for manufacturing aluminum.

But lawmaker Quoc insisted that besides the government, the national legislature also has a responsibility in scrutinizing the bauxite projects.

"Parliamentary committees concerned need to carry out their own overseeing activities and explicitly express their positions," Quoc wrote.

"This will play a crucial role in assuaging public fears," he added.

In a written response sent to Quoc, Nguyen Si Dung, the National Assembly's office vice manager, confirmed that the red sludge concern deserved greater attention from the parliament.

"The [parliamentary] Committee for Science, Technology, and Environment will beef up its monitoring activities at mining sites to ensure that no Hungary-like catastrophe will occur in Vietnam," Dung said.

"˜A decision before history'

In an interview with Thanh Nien Weekly in June, Nguyen Minh Thuyet, another outspoken lawmaker, said the National Assembly had not been given appropriate voice to influence decision making on the two bauxite projects.

At a plenary meeting in October 2009, lawmakers also pointed out that the government had divided projects into smaller ones of less than VND20 trillion (currently US$1.02 billion) to bypass the legislative approval process. According to a National Assembly resolution passed in 2006, only key national investment projects valued at VND20 trillion or above required approval of the legislature. The government later shrugged off the allegation, saying it was best that the projects were implemented separately.

"The government did not bring the bauxite project to the floor," said Thuyet. "The assembly tried to intervene but its efforts were not fruitful."

As legislators hold their five-week final session before the most important political event in the country, the Communist Party Congress, [held every five years and due in January], Quoc said that on issues of public concern like fears of a Hungary-like catastrophe, the National Assembly should bring into play its full responsibility as the national legislative body.

"The [bauxite mining] issue always carries [biological and environmental] risks for the country in the long run. Every lawmaker, even if they are going to step down after this session, should bear responsibility in their decision-making before history."

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