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Sinking the environment
Son Nguyen
Friday,  Jul 14, 2017,14:28 (GMT+7)

Sinking the environment

Son Nguyen

Grave concern is the overwhelming perception in all walks of life following a recent decision by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment to allow Vinh Tan 1 Power Company Ltd. to sink nearly one million cubic meters of sand and mud into the waters off Binh Thuan Province. As per the decision issued a fortnight ago, the company, owner of Vinh Tan 1 Thermopower Plant, is given three months till the end of October to dump that huge volume of sand and mud onto the seabed eight kilometers from the Hon Cau Marine Protected Area. Such a move, according to local media, is feared to pollute a large swathe of the sea in the long term, despite assurances from the ministry to safeguard the environment.

The waste is said to be comprised of mud, sand, shell, gravel and other sediments dredged from the seabed by the company while developing a turning basin near the special-use port for the power plant. In explanations to the media, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment asserts that careful protective measures have been anticipated, and all possible impacts on the environment have been weighed. Monitoring facilities will be installed to keep a close watch on the dumping process when barges discharge the waste onto the seabed. The process will be halted immediately if any incident negative to the environment is detected.

Such assurances fail to persuade experts and scientists as well as the general public.

Dr. Nguyen Chu Hoi, President of the Nature and Sea Environment Society of Vietnam, says in Thanh Nien that the environmental impact assessment report for the dumping plan does not mention how the dumping of the waste may affect the environment. Instead, it only says such sediments are not harmful to the environment, which is incorrect in a scientific approach.

“International practices require that waste must be packed in barrels or bags, and in case of toxic waste, it must be kept in water-tight lead containers and closely checked before they are dumped into the seabed. The seabed area to contain the waste must have dikes so that it is not washed away,” he is quoted in Thanh Nien.

Dr. Nguyen Tac An, former director of Nha Trang Oceanography Institute, says in Nguoi Lao Dong that dumping waste near Hon Cau is detrimental to marine life there.

“The Hon Cau Marine Protected Area is part of the coastal upwelling area. This marine area is of high value in terms of the environment, especially biodiversity. Dumping waste near the marine protected area will adversely affect the environment, destroy the biodiversity, and damage the backbone of the marine economy,” he is quoted by Nguoi Lao Dong as saying.

Dr. Nguyen Tac An also squarely rejects claims by Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Nguyen Linh Ngoc over the environmental safety when dumping waste onto the seabed. The deputy minister says that the seabed concerned contains only sand, without any ecological systems, and without any marine creatures like coral or seaweeds. However, An says the deputy minister’s assertion is unscientific because “the sea off Binh Thuan Province is not only the country’s single coastal upwelling area, but also the country’s biggest coastal fishing ground. That is to say the waters off Binh Thuan are of paramount importance with huge natural values that need to be protected,” according to Thanh Nien.

At a meeting last Friday between the ministry and scientists and local leaders, many were fretful about the possible impacts on the environment.

Truong Khuong Hai, deputy director of Binh Thuan Province’s Department of Science and Technology, said that the process of transporting mud from this area to another alone will result in the formation of phosphorus compounds which fish may eat, so a study into this issue should be conducted, according to Tuoi Tre. Meanwhile, Huynh Quang Huy, chairman of the Binh Thuan Fishermen Association, is concerned that any environmental incident will affect not only Binh Thuan waters, but pollution may also spread to Cam Ranh Bay to the north and Ca Mau in the southernmost region. Nguyen Ngoc Hai, Chairman of Binh Thuan Province’s government, said at the meeting that “there are good reasons behind worries of scientists and the people since this is the first time in Vietnam waste is to be dumped onto the seabed, especially in an area with peculiar characters and home to Hon Cau Marine Protected Area.”

Thoi bao Kinh te Sai Gon in an analysis poses a series of questions that should be answered thoroughly if the waste is to be dumped into the sea. Citing a statement from the ministry saying 80% of the waste is sand, the paper ponders why it is not used to produce concrete for dyke construction, or at least for export, as is done in the past.

The weekly magazine asks why possible impacts on Hon Cau Marine Protected Area and other shrimp farms nearby are not provided for public assessment, and why the project to sink waste is not transparently publicized for the public and scientists to vouch for the accuracy of its calculations.

Referring to a study conducted by researchers at the U.S.-based Rutgers University, the paper asserts that only 20% of waste dumped onto the sea can sink to the seabed, while the rest will be dispersed elsewhere by currents and waves, which means large swathes of the sea will be affected.

According to Thoi bao Kinh te Sai Gon, the total amount of waste discharged onto the sea worldwide was only one million tons in 2009. As such, the amount to be discharged by Vinh Tan 1 Power Company into the sea is the same as the total discharged in the rest of the world, which will be extremely hazardous to the environment.

More dangerously, the dumping of waste into the sea can be taken as a precedent for similar infringements on the marine environment. Just days after the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment issued the decision allowing for this move by Vinh Tan Thermopower Plant, a subsidiary of Vietnam Electricity Group has also filed an application to the ministry seeking permission to discharge as high as 2.4 million cubic meters of mud and sand dredged from elsewhere to the waters in Binh Thuan, according to Nguoi Lao Dong.

In the face of strong public protests, it is unknown whether the scheme to dump nearly one million tons of mud, sand and other sediments will go ahead or not. In the worst-case scenario, the move will be a dangerous step to sink the country’s marine environment

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