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Vietnam’s dirty growth

The prettiest route to the Vinh Tan 2 power plant follows the coast road in Binh Thuan Province, past endless foundering beachfront resorts and through some of the strongest coastal winds in the country.
A worker watering to prevent dust from the waste piles of spent coal at Vinh Tan 2 power plant in Binh Thuan Province.
A worker watering to prevent dust from the waste piles of spent coal at Vinh Tan 2 power plant in Binh Thuan Province.
Just five kilometers beyond Vinh Hao (the town where the namesake mineral water firm was founded) traffic comes to a crawl. Backhoes and bulldozers have dug a gully that separates the row of rice shops, motels and flophouses on your left from the National Highway.
On your right, the red and white chimney of the Vinh Tan 2 power station towers above the small fishing village of the same name. Built by the Shanghai Electricity Company and powered with coal dust trucked down from Quang Ninh Province, the smoke stack now seems more like a monument to bad ideas—a symbol for everything that’s wrong with Vietnam’s future power plans.
The Chinese media, incidentally, has described the Vinh Tan 2 as “China’s biggest investment in Vietnam.” In reality, the project involved paying Shanghai Electric $1.75 billion to build something it probably couldn’t sell in Shanghai.
The plant began partial operations in 2014 and paid $89,000 in environmental fee before the end of the year. In January of 2015, Vinh Tan 2 doubled its output, making everything worse.
On April 14, a group of local citizens gathered to protest the significant amounts of black dust blowing out over their village—both from the stack and the uncovered waste piles of spent coal.
A local mechanic, who agreed to speak via telephone on condition of anonymity, said the group mustered in force the following day at noon, then moved onto the highway—backing truck traffic up for miles.
Police responded with loudspeakers. “The police tried to calm everyone down and never arrested anyone,” the mechanic said. “There were no injuries as reported or rumored.”

Local residents block vehicles on National Highway 1 to protest Vinh Tan 2’s amounts of black dust blowing out over their village on April 15, 2015. Photo: Que Ha

The citizens refused to move, he said, and eventually began hurling rocks and petrol bombs at the cops. Three cars parked in front of nearby hotels were badly damaged, he said.
The protesters began to disperse in the early morning of the following day. Traffic didn’t get moving normally until after lunch on April 16.
On a recent weekday, a stooped 72-year woman parked her bicycle—loaded with plastic bottles—in full view of the intersection where this happened. Asked about the confrontation, she only wanted to talk about dust.
“That’s where the smoke came from,” she said pointing to the chimney in the distance. “It went all over everyone’s faces.”
When the wind slowed down, the pollution pouring out of the smokestack became intolerable, she said. Even when it picked up, she said, the Vinh Tan 2’s spent coal blew blanketed the town.
One estimate had it that 150 uncovered trucks drove tons of the black powder to an open landfill, every day. This made the air particularly hard for children to breath, she said. They coughed and suffered sore throats. And things got dirty in town.
A waitress at a local rice restaurant complained that, by the time you put a plate of rice down on the table it was black. “We sent letter after letter telling them to spray down the slate to cut down on the dust,” the waitress said. “But they wouldn’t do anything.”
That’s when everyone turned out to stop traffic. The waitress, who’d only been in town a month, had a front-row seat to the standoff.
She claimed only a single cop had his mouth ripped open by flying rock. After the chaos, all of the spent coal was covered and sprayed down—both at the landfill and on the trucks moving it around.
In the meantime, work continues in earnest on a tunnel to the waste dump that will reroute the trucks currently moving through town.
The protest raised the question of what Vietnam will do with the estimated millions of tons of waste—both dust and toxic slurry—generated by its coal plants.
A vice minister censured the managers of the plant and urged them to begin selling the slate to a cement manufacturer–an arrangement that could only prove economically viable by building cement factories in the little town.
In the end, it remains unclear why the Vinh Tan 2 has proven so dirty. The BBC quoted Professor Nguyen Dinh Tuan of the University of Natural Resources in Ho Chi Minh City as saying he suspected the plant’s engineers didn’t know how to use its electrostatic precipitator, a device designed to filter the emission of dust.
When contacted by phone, Tuan said he believed the plant was outfitted with such equipment but wondered if it worked or not.

Workers at Vinh Tan 2 coal power plant cover the landfill after the pollution protest. Photo: Que Ha

Aurecon, the Australian conglomerate hired to provide “project management and technical services” to the plant, did not respond to a list of questions sent to its offices.
“After the protest, the company that built the plant met with the locals and signed a commitment to reduce pollution,” said the anonymous mechanic. “The local administration monitored that process. But from what I’m seeing, pollution has only gotten worse since it was built. Measures to deal with the pollution have been so far very ad hoc.”
Provincial authorities plan to relocate the town’s most-affected hamlet to a “cleaner” location—though a local People’s Committee representative said there was no clear timeline for when the relocation would occur or to where.
This may be the only viable solution, given what’s in store for the little fishing village. The Vinh Tan 2 will eventually be joined by three more coal plants and a port to fuel them thanks to loans provided by Korea, Japan and China.
No one’s sure when they will actually be built. The Vinh Tan 1 plant, for example, was supposed to go on-stream in 2011, but is currently waiting on a $1.4 billion Chinese loan.
The Vinh Tan 4 is reportedly being built with Japanese and South Korean funds and is projected to be completed in 2017. One day, Vinh Tan will also become home to a port and various waste treatment centers to support all the coal burning.
The old scrap collector offered another idea: “Tell them to get involved and protect the environment.”