The Souring of Vietnam’s Coal Dream

Last week a tidal wave of toxic coal waste slurry has flooded shin-deep through houses in Cam Pha City in northern Vietnam following the collapse of a coal mine tailings dam after torrential monsoonal rain.

The widespread flooding of coal mines in Quang Ninh province along with part of the coal stored at the Quang Ninh Thermal Power Plant being washed into a river are likely to result in the pollution of the Ha Long Bay World Heritage site. The flooding of major coal mines  has many the country’s coal-power stations facing the prospect of running out of fuel within two weeks.

Despite the risk the disaster poses to residents and to the tourism industry in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam’s government-owned coal mining and power generation companies have provided scant details of what occurred.

What is known is that 17 people have died in the devastating floods, including four employees of the Hon Gai Coal Company, a subsidiary of the government-owned Vietnam National Coal and Mineral Industries Group (Vinacomin).

The collapse of a 3-metre long section of a coal mine tailings dam resulted in a coal sludge flooding Cam Pha City and forcing the evacuation of residents. (See photos and video.)

In a bare-bones media release Vinacomin provided no details on the volume of coal tailings which escaped from the dam. However, the company revealed that at least five of its mines have been flooded, roads within the mines damaged, the coal seam at one mine covered by a landslide and roads connecting the mines to the ports have been seriously damaged.

In a July 31 media release (original in Vietnamese here, Google Translate version here) Electricity of Vietnam (EVN) – the government-owned power utility – warned that the numerous landslides had hit coal transport routes and could have potentially crippling effects on the country’s coal-fired power stations.

EVN warned that the controversial Vinh Tan power station only had enough coal for a little over four days’ power generation and the Quang Ninh Thermal Power Plant a little over a week’s supply remaining. It also warned that the Duyen Hai Power Generation Complex further south only had ten days supply and the Hai Phong Thermal Power Station enough for only fifteen days generation.  Another six power stations have slightly more coal in stockpiles but are also at risk.

At the Quang Ninh Thermal Power Plant it was reported that at least two coal warehouses had been flooded and a large but unspecified volume of coal washed into Dien Vong River. The power station is on a large estuarine bay which flows into Ha Long Bay.

EVN has provided no details of whether the torrential rain has flooded its coal ash dams at its power stations.

While a senior official from the Ministry of Industry and Trade last week dismissed the possibility of renewable energy being a viable alternative to coal power plants on the grounds that solar and wind are weather dependent, EVN has warned that it is facing a power supply crisis because of its dependence on coal from the flood-affected Quang Ninh province.

With government agencies scrambling to respond to damage caused by last week’s unprecedented deluge, there is unlikely to be any reprieve in the short-term. With more intense rain occurring over the weekend and due to continue through Monday, the country’s coal-induced crisis is only likely to get worse.

While the magnitude of the disaster has yet to be fully revealed it is likely that at least some coal mines – such as the Mong Duong mine – will shut for at least three months. Others which are currently flooded will only be able to resume mining if they pump the millions of litres of polluted water out of the pits. Such wastewater would be heavily polluted and may well affect the Ha Long Bay World Heritage site.

The US-headquartered group, the Waterkeeper Alliance, point out that coal waste from mines and power stations can contain a toxic cocktail of heavy metals including arsenic, boron, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, manganese, selenium and thallium.

With the adjoining Ha Long Bay World Heritage site – comprising over 1600 limestone islands rising dramatically from the sea – and its associated tourism industry likely to be affected by the pollution, the costs of Vietnam’s coal-dependence are becoming ever starker.

Ever since Ha Long Bay was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1994, concerns have been raised about the likely effects of industrialisation – including coal pollution – on the values of the site.

The Government of Vietnam have downplayed the risks. UNESCO have accepted the reassurances of their local advisors and the Government of Vietnam that risks to the World Heritage values would be managed carefully.

However, the lament of a local government official last week that the latest disaster was caused by the highest rainfall in 40 years suggests that projects are under-engineered, especially in an era of climate change-induced extreme weather events. (A common engineering benchmark is to design for a one-in –a-hundred year flood event.)

The unfolding coal pollution debacle is just the latest in a string of coal-related disasters to affect Vietnam.

In late April thousands of residents blocked a national highway for 30 hours in protest against horrific air pollution from the recently commissioned Vinh Tan 2 power station, one of the coal power stations at risk of running out of fuel within days due to the latest flood disaster.

Nor are the impacts of coal projects confined to the land. In late August 2014 a coal ship carrying 2400 tonnes of coal sank not far from Ha Long Bay. Last week, in the same storm that swept through northern Vietnam, five Vietnamese coal carriers sank outside the port of Qisha in southern China, with another one grounded. (All 48 crew were rescued.)

With numerous new coal plants under consideration or construction Vietnam is at a crossroads. Japan and China in particular are keen for Vietnam to keep building more coal plants, with the bait of cheap finance for projects sourcing equipment from suppliers such as Mitsubishi and Chinese companies like Southern Power Grid Company and Chinese International Power Company. For its part the Australian Government is hopeful that a new source of demand for thermal coal might appear to prop up its ailing coal export industry.

The costs to Vietnam of embracing coal are likely to be high. The environmental costs of domestic coal are already growing, with citizens objecting to the health costs of air pollution, the loss of land, the use of scarce water and the impact on other industries. To cater for growing coal plants, Vietnam is shifting from being a coal exporter to an importer, spending scarce foreign currency reserves on coal while free sun and wind are largely ignored.

It remains to be seen whether the latest coal pollution debacle shakes the coal-centric resolve of the Vietnamese Government.

Bob Burton is the Editor of CoalWire, a weekly bulletin on global coal industry developments. (You can sign up for it here.) Bob Burton’s Twitter feed is here. (This article was first published in RenewEconomy.)