Ongoing bauxite projects decried as ineffective, unsafe

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The Ministry of Industry and Trade says it is ready to talk with critics who have called for a halt to the construction of two bauxite mines in the Central Highlands following the grizzly environmental disaster in Hungary.

In the past several days, however, prominent intellectuals have rejected government assurances that the project will be both profitable and environmentally sound, after issuing an open letter of protest to the nation's leaders. The petition called on them to suspend construction of the mines pending further scientific review.

Le Duong Quang, deputy minister of Industry and Trade, said the bauxite projects at Tan Rai Plant in Lam Dong Province and Nhan Co Plant in Dak Nong Province would provide valuable exports, reduce the trade deficit and improve the life of local residents.

The project received investment from the state-owned Vietnam National Coal, Mineral Industries Holding Corp. Ltd. (Vinacomin) under the Ministry of Industry and Trade.

"The Ministry of Industry and Trade will not halt the project but on the contrary, we have instructed to speed up the Tan Rai Plant," he told the media.

"The mining project has been deemed an effective development project," he said.

He added that the [trade] ministry, which oversees the project, has reviewed the mines to ensure that the designs for their toxic residue reservoirs are sound.

"We asked Vinacomin to hire an independent consultant to design the red sludge reservoirs while surveying earthquake possibilities in the Central Highlands," he said. "We have also dispatched a team to study the case in Hungary."

On October 4, 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 has given fuel to the fiery opposition to Vietnam's first alumina project.

Profit vs. loss

Duong Van Hoa, deputy general director of Vinacomin, said that Vietnam's alumina industry shouldn't be stifled just because of an accident in Hungary, which he described as the first of its kind.

"It is clear that a halt to plant construction would mean major financial losses," he told the Tuoi Tre newspaper. "We have invested more than US$400 million in the Central Highlands bauxite project which has drawn from a total investment of VND12 trillion ($615.7 million)."

However, an emerging group of intellectual opponents to the plan have argued that the project is incapable of making money. Due to the plant's remote location, they charge that it lacks sufficient resources to power a full-scale refinement operation and that transportation costs will far outweigh any operational proceeds.

"A great deal has been invested here but there is no actual possibility for profit," read an October 9 petition signed by a number of prominent bauxite opponents, including former Vice President Nguyen Thi Binh and Fields Medal winner Ngo Bao Chau. "It even promises a sure loss."

The petitioners urged a swift and decisive halt to mine construction warning new dangers as the project advances.

"This is no time for fretting about losses from a halt to the project," the letter reads. "Each day brings further losses."

In the document, petitioners called for five measures. They urged a halt to construction of the Tan Rai Plant; an end to discussions with foreign partners about Nhan Co Plant; and the suspension of the whole alumina project in the Central Highlands pending further scientific research.

The letter urged leaders to set up an independent group to review the plan and submit its findings to the National Assembly, Vietnam's legislature, and local citizens before arriving at a decision.

"˜Theoretically safe'

Meanwhile the Ministry of Industry and Trade and Vinacomin defended the project's safety features, by championing the multi-chamber design of its toxic sludge reservoir.

"I am not surprised by the breach of the red sludge reservoir in Hungary," Pham Khoi Nguyen, Vietnam's minister of Natural Resources and Environment, told the media on the sidelines of a National Assembly session last week. "Their technology is different from ours. We have set aside between $35 million and $50 million for the construction of the [multi-chambered] sludge reservoir."

He said his ministry guarantees the safety of two waste reservoirs in the Central Highlands. "However, they are not in operation and thus this is theoretical assurance," he added.

In response to media questions about the possibility of a trial project, Nguyen replied "What kind of trial? Two plants are under construction, including one that will be operating soon. All of the [environmental variables] have been calculated and solved in the plan."

In response to criticism levied in response to the government's decision to use "dated" methods of channeling wet toxic sludge into holding reservoirs instead of drying it for dumping, Deputy Minister of Industry and Trade Le Duong Quang said that 66 percent of bauxite plants in the world are using the former option.

"The sloped terrain is suitable for discharging wet mud. In reality, dry mud would become wet once discharged [in the rainy environment]," he said.

Despite these assurances, a former Vinacomin senior official has come out and charged that the reservoir designs are unsafe.

Nguyen Van Ban, former head of Vinacomin's alumina project division, described the plan to discharge wet sludge into reservoirs as cheap and risky. It could cause grave damage to the environment, he said and there is danger of a reservoirs breaching.

"That is not an advanced method. Discharging wet red mud is a dated one. Despite the fact that Vinacomin has designed multi-chamber reservoirs all of them would burst in the event of a natural disaster," he said.

Le Huy Minh, vice director of the Institute of Geophysics, said the agency has not been asked for professional advice on the project. However, he expressed alarm about several major geological fault lines in the Central Highlands that could affect the sludge reservoirs.

On October 23, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, minister and chairman of the Central Government Office, said the agency was collecting opinions about the ongoing bauxite projects and will report to the Politburo [the decision-making body of the Communist Party], the central government and the National Assembly.

"Precautions should be taken but it will take some time before a final decision is made following a review by intellectuals and scholars," he told the media last Saturday. He added that the National Assembly and government would make the final determination on what to do next.

Phuc also said that the plan requires more thorough research, including technological and environmental safety reviews based on new and emerging weather patterns.

He said the issue would be discussed during the month-long National Assembly meeting. During the session, Phuc said, government officials would be prepared to answer questions from legislators about the project's details.

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