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Illegal mining of black gold set to thrive amidst a culture of deep corruption in Quang Ninh

Police raid an illegal coal mine in Quang Ninh Province's Ha Long Town. Government officials in Quang Ninh have reported that illegal coal miners have become much more cunning of late.

Pham Ngoc Phuong knew there was a good chance he would be fired some day.

Two months into his job, he knew it was not a matter of chance, but a certainty.

The former chairman of Ha Khanh Ward People's Committee, the local administration, said, "I thought I had a 50 percent chance of being sacked, but I still accepted the job. After two months, I realized that it was almost a hundred percent," referring to the District People's Committee's statement that they could fire him if there were any fatalities related to illegal mining, or if illegal operations damaged houses of local residents. 

Less than a year after he had taken up the assignment, Phuong's foresight was vindicated early this year. He was dismissed from his post after police detected an illegal coal mine threatening an important high tension electricity pole.

"My days used to be spent eating to survive and raiding illegal mining activities all the time," he said, adding that he has regained five kilograms since his dismissal.

The bane of existence for Phuong and others like him is the rampant illegal coal mining that has gone on for years in the northern province of Quang Ninh. It has become so widespread that it looks impossible for authorities to do anything about it until laws are changed and the sector's management overhauled.

According to the Vietnam National Coal and Mineral Industries Holding Corporation Limited (Vinacomin), Quang Ninh owns the country's richest coal reserves which are estimated at 10.5 billion tons within a range of 1,000 meters deep into the ground.

There are no official statistics so far on the quantity of illegal coal being exploited and taken out of Quang Ninh. The High Command of Border Guards reported last year that around 100,000 tons of coal and other minerals have been illegally exported on a monthly basis on the northwest seas.

A 2009 survey by Tan Viet Securities Incorporation said the amount of illegal coal exploited was equal to the amount exploited by Vinacomin, which was 40 million tons in 2008.

Cunning ruses

Several government officials in Quang Ninh have reported that illegal coal miners have become much more cunning of late.

On August 25, Thanh Nien accompanied police and officials of Ha Khanh Ward People's Committee in a raid on illegal coal mines.

At a place not very far from their office, dozens of people were removing machines and tents when the 30-member team arrived. A militiaman who seized several swords said the miners would have attacked the officials if they had raided the place without a strong contingent.

The mine was actually a deep hole 1.2 meters in diameter casually supported by small logs. After ensuring there was no one underground, the team collapsed the mine with a dredging machine. All machines of the illegal miners were destroyed and they were also told to sign documents acknowledging their violations.

"The ward administration's office has no more space to keep seized machines," said chairman Nguyen Tuan Minh.

Meanwhile, illegal miners nearby had managed to flee the scene with their machines when the team came. It took more than two hours for the dredging machine to fill the mine.

The team filled two more similar mines in the morning. However, no member considered that a victory.

"They will dig the mines again soon or move to a new place," said team member Ha Van Khoai, adding that some illegal mines have been dug up repeatedly after the authorities filled them, up to 20 times.

Nguyen Van Phong, deputy director of Hon Gai Coal Mining Company, said illegal miners always come up with new ploys to avoid detection.

"We used to track down dropped coal dust on the roads to find illegal mines but they now spray water on the roads to clear evidence," he said.

He said many illegal miners are ready to pay up to several billions of Vietnamese dong to retired miners at state-owned companies to design structures that mitigate damage done when local authorities destroy it.

"They have set up separate chambers underground to avoid the whole mine being totally collapsed or filled by dredging machines," he said.

As coal reserves are abundant in Quang Ninh, some miners just rent or buy residents' houses and dig the mine entrance inside the house to avoid detection.

And even if this is discovered, miners would pay a lot of money for their subordinates to admit to the crime and accept punishment.

A judge who has been working in Quang Ninh for 20 years, said on condition of anonymity that in many coal smuggling cases, the actual criminals disappeared and had subordinates admit to the crime and receive jail terms.

"Some are ready to stay in jail for several years to get hundreds of millions of dong from the actual culprits," he said.

Corrupt officials

Together with illegal coal mining, Vietnam's coal industry has also been significantly damaged by corrupt officials of the state-owned coal miner Vinacomin, experts said.

On August 25, the Quang Ninh People's Court opened a hearing against 19 coal workers accused of taking bribes from Vinacomin's Chinese buyers to supply better coal than specified in the contract.

The case involved 4,000 tons of coal, causing losses of VND900 million (current US$43,200). Investigators said each defendant received bribes of between VND1 million and VND45 million in the scam.

Quang Ninh police have reported 16 cases in 2010 involving 98 people working at Vinacomin's affiliates who are accused of violating laws in the managing, mining and trading of coal in the province. These include 41 officials accused of receiving bribes and being irresponsible causing serious consequences at the Mao Khe Coal Mining Company, 16 with the Hon Gai Transport Company and 14 with the Quang Hanh Coal Mining Company.

In a recent letter to Thanh Nien, Quang Ninh police blamed the violations on the management model at Vinacomin.

"Vinacomin is both the governmental management agency monitoring the industry and holding a monopoly in coal trading. There are limits in mining and management competency. They are also allowed to hire private actors to mine and have failed to manage the exploitation," it said.

A Vinacomin official who wished to remain anonymous admitted that few people would act against illegal mining.

"Fighting against illegal coal miners/smugglers means facing threats of revenge on you and your family. Meanwhile, coal is not our personal property. Thus, some mine owners have been irresponsible in acting against the violators," he said.

Nguyen Thanh Son, director of Vinacomin's Red River Coal Mining Projects Management Unit, also said there should be bidding for mining rights and for buying coal in the domestic market.

"Currently, Vinacomin is buying electricity from Electricity of Vietnam (EVN) at market prices while selling coal to EVN at [government-regulated] low prices. This has led to coal smuggling," he said.

Vu Van Hop, deputy chairman of Ha Long Town People's Committee, proposed stricter measures against illegal coal mining and transportation.

"We have busted several cases but were unable to seize the trucks and vessels carrying illegal coal. Illegal mining would stop if they are not able to transport it," he said.

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