Thanh Nien exposé prompts investigation of Vietnam official's illegal sand operation

By Que Ha - Yen Linh, Thanh Nien News

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Illegal sand excavation by former justice head of Binh Thuan Province has created ponds near a 220 kV electric pole. Photo credit: Que Ha Illegal sand excavation by former justice head of Binh Thuan Province has created ponds near a 220 kV electric pole. Photo credit: Que Ha
Authorities in the south-central province of Binh Thuan are investigating a former justice department official for allegedly orchestrating an illegal sand excavation project that pays no taxes and has damaged local infrastructure.
Officials in Ham Liem Commune of Ham Thuan Bac District told undercover Thanh Nien Newsreporters that Tran Van Xe, former director of the Binh Thuan Justice Department, is behind the excavation of 150 hectares (370-hectare) (and counting) of sand.
A Thanh Nien News investigation revealed that Xe's alleged operation has recklessly overloaded a local bridge, destroyed a major road and threatened the structural integrity of a high-voltage electricity pole.
Ho Lam, deputy director of the Binh Thuan Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, said a team of provincial police have visited the site and documented the illegal activity.
Lam said he would meet with the district authorities to discuss measures to end the excavation once and for all--no matter who's behind it.
A worker said the land once belonged to commune residents, but Xe and his brother (identified only as B.) bought it all up.
“He just bought another hundred hectares,” the worker said.
During a Thanh Nien News visit to the site early this week, seven excavators were noisily digging up sand five meters from the 220kw electric pole, while another team rested in the shade. 
The digging had created a veritable moat around the foot of the pole.
Trucks tasked with hauling the sand to town crossed use a bridge designed for locals to take produce to market.
The bridge had a load limit of 10 tons, but a commune official said dozens of sand trucks simultaneously cross the bridge during the day, and hundreds at night.
The bridge could collapse any time, the official said.
The trucks have also damaged a north-south railway-crossing, knocking down warning signs, and creating holes in a major road that was built with a great deal of investment.
A construction material retailer in the provincial capital, Phan Thiet Town, said Xe provides around 40 percent of sand in town, and at cheaper prices since he doesn't pay taxes.
“Working with Xe saves the trouble of being checked by the authorities while transporting the sand. So many retailers chose him,” the retailer identified only as Nguyen K. said.
Nguyen Thi My Van, chairwoman of Ham Liem Commune, said everyone knows that Xe is behind the illegal business but there’s little that they can do to stop it.
“I’m no stranger to this,” Van said after being shown a video of the sand excavation in her area.
“We have little power.
“For example, the commune police do not have the right to stop sand trucks on the road. And when we go to the site, there’s usually no one there.”
“He’s too stubborn,” Van said.
She said her staff has documented the activity many times, but she's had to tell them to handle Xe with caution as he knows the laws too well.
“He was the former director of the justice department and I heard that he’s opening a law office," she said. 
The commune office said they've already seized eight pumps from Xe’s illegal sand excavation site.
Tran Thanh Dat, chairman of the Ham Thuan Bac District, said that given Xe's knowledge of the law, he is clearly flouting the rules.
“I will assemble a special inspection team to gather evidence and transfer the case to the police as a criminal case.”
This is not Xe's first brush with the law.
In June 2009, he was censured for forging signatures to open fake companies and process illegal land transfers.
He was sacked from his post a month later.

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