An American environmental group has sounded the alarm as extreme flooding sweeps parts of northern Vietnam and said that nearby coal mines and coal-fired power stations threaten to contaminate the World Heritage listed Ha Long Bay.
The ongoing flooding in Quang Ninh province has been intensifying over recent days and the New York based WaterKeeper Alliance said “downpours in northeastern Vietnam have now seen toxic spills and flooding from multiple coal mine and power plant sites in the province surrounding the Ha Long Bay World Heritage Site”.
A map produced by the group – which somewhat ironically has Robert F. Kennedy Jr as its President – marks the whereabouts of three coal-fired power stations and two coal mines within a roughly 50 kilometre radius of the majestic World Heritage site.
“The likelihood of both immediate and ongoing health and environmental hazards for locals and the rare environment there are clearly increasing by the hour and the scale of this event cannot be understated,” said Donna Lisenby, Clean and Safe Energy Campaign Manager for the WaterKeeper Alliance.
Former Greens leader Bob Brown said yesterday morning the incident looked like “an ecological disaster in the making” but so far the reaction has been slow.
“A disaster response team from the government has been deployed – which is encouraging – but we are deeply concerned by the pace of this unfolding disaster and its sheer scale,” said Kennedy Jr.
The organisation has a long history of responding to incidents like these, particularly in America and Canada, and it said there has been a “dramatic rise” in the number of coal-related water spill disasters it has responded to since 2008.
The WaterKeeper Alliance said that, along with the three coal-fired power plants, Ha Long Bay is surrounded by 5,736 hectares of open-pit coal mines. “They are already flooded, with more rain predicted for the next 7 days,” a spokesperson said.
The mines and power stations are all in close proximity to bodies of water that connect with Ha Long Bay, famed for its peculiar limestone formations, and Kennedy “urges the government, and encourages UNESCO and the international community, to get involved and protect Ha Long Bay from further pollution”.
“We need to see all parties acting decisively to protect the growing number of local communities and this pristine World Heritage Site that are facing a clear and present danger,” he said.
An academic at the Harvard University Medical School, Dr Aaron Bernstein, said that “floodwaters flowing from open-pit coal mines likely contain a slurry of toxic heavy metals, including arsenic, cadmium and lead, as well as other harmful substances”.
“We also know from past research that the soils in this region of Vietnam may be contaminated with these same pollutants, which may be mobilised by floods as we saw in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina,” Dr Bernstein said.
“So, in addition to the usual harms that may immediately follow severe flooding such as traumatic injuries, outbreaks of waterborne disease, or death, the floods around Quang Ninh carry the potential to exact permanent damage to the developing nervous systems of children which are uniquely vulnerable to these toxic elements.”
Vietnamese media has broadcast images of Cam Pha City, around 35 kilometres from the mouth of Ha Long Bay, being evacuated as residents trudge through thick mud that the WaterKeeper Alliance said is contaminated with coal waste.
According to reporting from the New York Times at least 17 people have been killed by the deluge.
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