Coal mining companies destroy environment in plain view

TN News

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Nguyen Tien Phuong, deputy director of Vang Danh Coal Mining Company, says his family doesn't dare drink even boiled tap water.

He admits that his company has been blatantly discharging untreated wastewater directly into a nearby stream that sources the Lan Thap Water Plant.

He says other companies do the same at the Vietmindo, Uong Bi and Nam Mau mines in the town of Uong Bi.

And Uong Bi is not the only community in the northern coal capital of Quang Ninh Province that is choking on the pollution from coal mines.

Residents in the towns of Cam Pha and Ha Long have been suffering from the same problem for decades.

Reckless mining has sent millions of tons of coal dust into the air, contaminating both ground and underground water, and transforming natural eco-systems.

Mountains of excess soil, sand and stones have also been deposited near residential communities as miners excavate 10 tons of rock and dirt for every one ton of coal they procure.

The excess piles, known in the industry as "tailings" or "leavings," collapse easily and some have crumbled into nearby streams and blocked the water sources, causing floods and thick clouds of air pollution that rise over local homes.

The companies in Quang Ninh are all affiliates of the state-run Vietnam Coal and Mining Industries Group (Vinacomin). The group produces 70 percent of its annual 40-million-ton capacity in Quang Ninh each year.

A recent report by researchers at the Uong Bi Natural Resources and Environment Agency and the Hanoi University of Natural Sciences said that 750-800 tons of coal dust floats into Vang Danh Commune per year.

Some 1,900-2,200 tons of the black particles are deposited over the whole town in a year, said the report. The dust is deposited via air and water and also by trucks that spill and kick up coal on bumpy roads.

The researchers also said dust contamination was up to 10 times exceeding safety levels throughout the town.

The report too found open water sources were contaminated by harmful substances at levels hundreds of times higher than regulations allow.

Environmental wrecking crews

Coal mining exploitation in Uong Bi has expanded remarkably since 1990, when Vinacomin found a large reserve in the area and established several new affiliate companies, including Nam Mau, Uong Bi and Vietmindo.

Vang Danh Coal Mining Company has also increased its output from 35,000 tons to 300,000 tons a year since 1990.

A senior official at Vang Danh admitted the company had no plans to protect the environment or repair any damage.

Hills left barren and treeless by mining now fuel floods, mudslides and landslides that swallow homes by the Canh Ga Stream when it rains.

Nguyen Tien Dung, deputy head of Uong Bi Natural Resources and Environment Agency, said dust from mining and coal transportation has blackened trees and walls "everywhere."

Nguyen Van Kha, a resident in Uong Bi's Thanh Son Ward, said trucks operated around the clock in the area, forcing residents to endure nerve-splitting noise pollution at all hours.

Several coal mines in Cam Pha Town have no wastewater treatment systems, according to Nguyen Van Nghi, deputy chairman of the town's People's Committee.

He said all wastewater is discharged directly into the town's 25 rivers and streams, which are now heavily polluted. Even underground water is now unusable, said Nghi.

Sowing death

Luu Khac Pha, a local from Cua Ong Ward in Cam Pha, said he feared rain the most as it would one day collapse some of the 50 mountain-like piles of rock and sand left behind by miners in Cam Pha and Ha Long.

He said it was lucky when no one was killed in 2006 when a waste tailing from the Coc Sau Coal Company's Khe De mine collapsed.

The flood of stones, soil and water swept away six houses, seven cows and dozens of motorbikes, he said.

The Cam Pha People's Committee said the waste piled up by the area's 12 Vinacomin units were a serious threat to the town.

Cam Pha's deputy mayor Nghi said Cam Pha mines have exploited an average total of 26 million tons a year, meaning that 260 million tons of waste rock and dirt have been accumulated in tailings or elsewhere.

Tran Van Loi, deputy chairman of Ha Phong Ward in Ha Long, said local residents were terrified that a nearby tailing left behind by Hon Gai Coal Company in 2007 would collapse any time.

He said the ward had instructed the company to reinforce the tailing to avoid a collapse threat.

In 2008, Ha Long residents suffered a flood after stones and soil discharged by mining blocked a nearby stream.

No protection

In 2003, Vinacomin said two of its affiliates, Coc Sau Coal JSC and Deo Nai Coal JSC, were guilty of seriously polluting the environment.

In 2008, three others were found culpable of the same wrongdoing: Mong Duong, Thong Nhat and Nam Mau.

Le Minh Chuan, Vinacomin deputy general director, said a recent inspection of 21 units found that all had failed to follow environmental regulations issued by the group as well as local and central laws.

Violations included failing to prepare environment impact plans, not installing wastewater treatment facilities and no refilling and repairs of mining sites after exploitation.

The units were also found occupying land outside their purview to mine and discharge tailings.

At a conference last month in Ha Long, Vinacomin admitted to charges of serious environmental regulation breaches that had thrust air, noise and water pollution onto communities in Dong Trieu, Uong Bi, Hon Gai and Hoanh Bo.

Vinacomin also admitted it had failed to draft any kind of environmental protection plan. But the group said the failure was not its fault as Vinacomin's master coal mining plan through 2015 had been held up by approval agencies. The group said it needed approval for that plan before drafting environmental protection measures.

The group's Deputy General Director Chuan said Vinacomin had set up a fund to repair sites and environments after mining but that affiliate companies had ignored the issue.

"Recovery to the environment after coal mining is not a two or three year process. It takes 40-50 years to show results," he said.

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