Busted reservoir lets loose panic over Vietnam's titanium plan

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Red sludge from a titanium reservoir break covers a large area in Binh Thuan Province November 18. Photo courtesy of Tuoi Tre

Work on what will be the biggest titanium processing center in Vietnam is scheduled to start in the central province of Binh Thuan this Friday.

While officials are optimistic about eventual economic benefits, they also voiced concerns over incidents like that of November 18, when one of the main lines of a titanium company's reservoir cracked, causing a flood of red mud that damaged houses and over a thousand hectares of fields .

The mess has not been completely cleaned up and locals have not been compensated for their losses, Tuoi Tre said Sunday.

Nguyen Duc Hoa, director of Binh Thuan Department of Planning and Investment, said the Song Binh industrial zone in Bac Binh District will refine titanium ore into products like titanium dioxide which is used as a pigment, titanium sponges, and zircon oxychloride which is used as grease, additives, waterproofing and fireproofing materials.

"It will be much more effective than other plants that only mine and export raw ore," Hoa said in a Tuoi Tre report.

He said the authorities will ensure that measures aimed at limiting negative environmental impacts are taken during the plant's construction and operation.

But confidence is low that Hoa will make good on his promise, given the recent reservoir break.

Initial investigations showed that the incident took place when Binh Thuan Commerce and Natural Resource Investment JSC was excavating titanium with an expired license.

Figures from the General Department of Geology and Minerals of Vietnam showed that Binh Thuan is home to more than 500 million tons of titanium, more than 90 percent of the estimated national total.

Nguyen Huu Quy, chairman of Binh Thuan's Nature and Environment Protection Association, said his concern is not about the ore running out, but the environmental damage caused when poor technology is used to collect it.

Quy said local mines have only taken 5-7 million tons, but the resulting damage was widespread, with the vegetation and coastline ravaged by mining companies dug larger holes than necessary and then failed to fill them up.

Quy also pooh-poohed the economic benefits of titanium projects, saying they only brought in VND100 billion in taxes so far, less than that from lottery tickets.

The upcoming 30-hectare zone, which was approved by the Prime Minister and has drawn investment from Russia in addition to local companies, is located upstream of the Luy River.

Huynh Giac, director of Binh Thuan Department of Natural Resources and Environment, cautioned that when more advanced technology is used, excavations will go deeper, up to 100 meters into the ground, "meaning greater risks to the environment."

He also said the zone will increase mining activities around the area.

Doctor Nguyen Kim Hoang, head of geology at the University of Natural Sciences at Vietnam National University-Ho Chi Minh City, also questioned authorities' ability to manage such a large-scale project after being unable to control small ones.

"We have supervisory units from central to local governments, and strict principles, but rules are loosely applied and the government agencies keep passing the buck."

Local councilors said the people that they represented want nothing of the new project.

Councilor Nguyen Toan Thien said people living near titanium mines have long been complaining about pollution.

Thien said the authorities kept saying they found no violations and make lame excuses when incidents like the reservoir break happen.

A councilor from Bac Binh District said people have been "very worried" after hearing about the new project. "I think the main principle in doing anything is to take people's opinions into account."

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