Coal miner Pham Van Tuyen and his family narrowly escaped through a window as floodwaters and slurry inundated their home in northeastern Vietnam last month. After surviving Quang Ninh province’s worst torrential rains in four decades, the Tuyens still face lingering danger.
Toxic run-off from the open-pit mine left a trail of contamination, from streams near the Tuyens’ home to the emerald waters of Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site whose islets attract more than 1 million visitors a year.
The disaster is stoking criticism of Vietnam’s growing reliance on coal-fired electricity -- a key driver of climate changes linked to freakish weather events like the one that flooded Tuyen’s home and killed 17 other locals in late July. The nation’s demand for power generated by the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel is among the fastest-growing in Southeast Asia, clashing with trends in Canada, New Zealand and some other developed countries spurning coal-based electricity.
“This is the first environmental disaster in Vietnam’s coal mining industry, and the consequences are yet to be identified in terms of scale, duration and intensity,” said Nguyen Dang Anh Thi, a consultant to the World Bank’s International Finance Corp. resources efficiency program. “It’s time for Vietnam to evaluate comprehensively the national energy security related to power sources, especially to thermal-coal power and its supply chains.”
Vietnamese leaders have tethered the economy, poised to be one of the fastest-growing in the world, to cheap electricity from coal. Power demand will increase 10-to-12 percent annually through 2030, the International Atomic Energy Agency said. By 2020, almost half of the supply will be generated by burning coal, up from a third now, according to government targets.
Global prices for the combustible rock sunk to an eight-year low in May amid a glut of the fuel and slowing demand from China, the world’s biggest buyer. Low prices are discouraging investments in alternative, cleaner energy sources.
Vietnam has 19 thermal-coal-burning power plants capable of producing as much as 14,480 megawatts of electricity plus about 15 million tons a year of ash, the government said in an Aug. 10 posting. There will be at least twice as much waste produced annually from 2020, with the number of coal-fired plants projected to more than double to 43 plants, with a combined 39,020-megawatt capacity.
That doesn’t bode well for air quality. The World Health Organization implicated pollutants from coal combustion and other solid fuels in outdoor air in 3.7 million deaths worldwide in 2012. Of those, 70 percent occurred in Asia and the Pacific region, the Geneva-based organization said last year, adding that the risks from air pollution are now far greater than previously thought, especially for heart disease and strokes.
“When you add it all up, does it make economic sense to still pursue this policy?” said Koos Neefjes, a climate change policy adviser with the United Nations Development Program in Hanoi. “Vietnam should reconsider its long-term plans and consider alternative options.”
Even before the flooding, coal was making miner Tuyen sick.
His home is 150 meters (500 feet) from the pit at which he’s worked for state-owned Vietnam National Coal-Mineral Industries Holding Corp., or Vinacomin, for 14 years. Coal mined there feeds the Mong Duong power plant, emissions from which have been blamed for sickening nearby residents.
Vinacomin didn’t answer e-mailed questions asking about any environmental damage, saying only that all flooded coal mines are expected to resume operations this month, except the Mong Duong coal mine, the worst-affected, which can’t open again until late November.
Provincial authorities and its environmental department declined to comment on the health effects, as did officials at EVN. It plans to put two more coal-fired plants in Tuyen’s Quang Ninh province in the next two years, according to a plan posted on the Ministry of Industry and Trade’s website.
Tuyen was diagnosed eight years ago with a lung disease that doctors told him was caused by his work, he said.
“Our health is definitely affected since we live with black smoke and dust,” the 38-year-old said. His two-room home is now caked in coal slurry and rocks that were carried by the floodwaters and now pile to the roof.
Streams in his province of Quang Ninh are clogged with coal debris, forcing many residents to abandon their homes for safer dwellings, the Saigon Times reported on Aug. 6, citing Mai Thanh Dung, deputy head of the Vietnam Environment Administration.
“This is a time bomb and it’s already started to explode through this disaster,” said the UNDP’s Neefjes. “There is no mine, no coal-fired power plant operating in this country that’s taken into account climate change and the extreme weather it’s bringing.”
The tragedy in Vietnam is a “painful example” of the impact that coal mines can have on communities, said Helen Szoke, chief executive officer of the Australian arm of Oxfam.
The aid group campaigned last month for the government of Australia, the world’s second-largest exporter of thermal coal, to end its “love affair” with the fossil fuel and assist other nations to do the same.