50-Year Lao Bauxite Mine May Threaten Rivers in Cambodia

Officials in Laos this week an­nounced the start of a half-century of strip mining along the Cam­bodi­an border that may drink up half of the flow of a Sekong River tributary and produce enough in­dustrial waste to change the local landscape.

However, the possible harm that the $3.6 billion bauxite mine may cause to the Sekong River, the Me­kong River’s largest tributary, has yet to be fully studied, according to an environmental assessment commissioned by the Sino-Lao Alumin­um Corporation, a joint Thai, Lao and Chinese venture formed in 2007.

The Cambodian Environment Ministry said Thursday that Cam­bodia hopes to cooperate with Laos in preventing any environmental damage but that, under a regional Mekong River management agreement, Laos is responsible for the management of shared water re­sources on its territory.

“I don’t think that we can suggest the Lao Government to abandon this project for their own benefit,” Environment Minister Mok Mar­eth wrote in an e-mail.

“[A]ll riparian state[s] have their responsibility to sustain the management of the water both in the mainstream and their tributaries,” he added. “We expect to cooperate with Lao Environment institution to assure the best management of all waste such as you mention.”

The Vientiane Times reported on Wednesday that at a signing ceremony Monday with the Lao Ministry of Planning and Invest­ment, SLACO Second Vice Presi­dent Xaysana Seningvongsa an­nounced that construction was to begin next month. For an annual production of a half million tons of aluminum ingots, the company anticipates total revenues of $24 billion over the life of the mine, of which about $9 billion will accrue to the government of Laos, he was quoted as saying.

But company documents show this will nevertheless come at some cost to the region.

Just 5 km north of the Stung Treng province border with Laos, the mine operations would continue day and night, 270 days of the year for 47 years, according to a re­cently obtained April summary of the project’s environmental and social impact assessment.

With an average power demand of 840 megawatts, the 147-square-km concession will require at least three coal-fired 30-megawatt power stations producing 310,000 tons per year of slag, to be captured and stored at an ash stockyard, ac­cording to the summary.

A 23-square-km bauxite residue area will contain the 3.6 million tons of highly alkaline waste residue, al­so known as “red mud,” produced every year by the mine.

The project’s operations will also require the consumption of 108,749 cubic meters of water per day, with 1.3 cubic meters per second coming from the Xe Namnoy river, equal to half its peak flow.

The Xe Namnoy is a tributary of the Sekong River, which is already the site of at least five planned Lao hydropower dams, and which in turn provides 7.2 percent of the rainy season flow of the Mekong.

Bounkham Vorachit, deputy dir­ector of the Lao Department of En­vironment, said by telephone Tues­day that the Lao government had yet to grant final approval for the project. At press time, she had not answered detailed queries submitted via e-mail.

Phonchaleun Nonthasay, acting director-general of the Lao Water Resources and Environment Ag­ency, referred questions Thursday to the Lao Ministry of Energy and Mines, where officials could not be reached.

An e-mail seeking comment from SLACO CEO Prayote Chin­pinyokul was not answered.

The summary of the project’s en­vironmental impact assessment makes clear that the company has identified the nature of possible en­vironmental degradation.

“The environment most at risk from any changes to water quality is the Xe Namnoy River down stream of the mine concession area and Xekong and Xe Pian rivers downstream of the refinery,” the report’s authors state.

“In particular, the generation of significant quantities of highly alkaline red mud (and associated contaminants) represents the most significant risk to downstream surface water and groundwater quality.”

Other risks include increased suspended solid matter in river wa­ters, reduced oxygen levels and elevated concentrations of nutrients from wastewater, path­ogens, cyan­ide and the accidental discharge of fuels during operations.

Careful operations and the use of protective measures can reduce such risks, the report said.

“Detrimental environmental im­pacts will be minimized through the use of industry best practices,” it adds.

A chart contained in the report shows anticipated effects on certain Lao segments of the Xe Namnoy and Sekong rivers as varying from “minor” to “moderate” and “high.” However, the report says this is still poorly defined information.

“There is currently insufficient data to quantify the magnitude of potential impacts on surface and groundwater hydrology during the construction and operations phases,” the report said.

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