Half-Century Lao Mine May Help Drain Rivers

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 which 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 Wednesday that at a signing ceremony on 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-kilometer 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-kilometer 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 on 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 Namnnoy 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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