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Toxic Floods From Coal Mines and Power Plants Hit Vietnam's Ha Long Bay World Heritage Site

Energy

Ongoing downpours in northeastern Vietnam have resulted in toxic spills and flooding from multiple coal mine and power plant sites in the province surrounding the Ha Long Bay World Heritage Site.

The historic floods in Quang Ninh with total rainfall in the past three days up to 600-800 mm caused mountain erosion, ruined many houses and left 18 dead. There are six people still missing. Photo credit: Vietnamnet

“The likelihood of both immediate and ongoing health and environmental hazards for locals and the rare environment 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 Waterkeeper Alliance.

The events of the last few days appear to be getting worse with news reports of severe flooding inundating the Lang Khanh harbor area and Dien Vong river with fresh leakages from the Quang Ninh coal-fired power plant. This coal plant is located on the waterfront that connects directly to world renowned Ha Long Bay world heritage site (see this map).

“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 Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., president of Waterkeeper Alliance.

Ignoring the hazard warning from the local government, hundreds of people who regretted the "black gold" drifting out to sea sought every way to salvage coal. Photo credit: Vietnamnet

Ha Long Bay is surrounded by 5,736 hectares of open pit coal mines and three coal-fired power plants. They are already flooded with more rain predicted for the next seven days.

“We again urge the Government and encourage UNESCO, and the international community to get involved and protect Ha Long Bay from further pollution by coal mines and coal-fired power plants,” said Kennedy. “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 clear and present danger.”

The coal grounds of many coal companies in the city of Cam Pha, Quang Ninh province were washed away to the sea by the largest downpours and floods in the past 40 years from Saturday through Monday. Hundreds of local people flocked to a local stream to collect coal. Photo credit: Vietnamnet

“Waterkeeper Alliance knows from firsthand experience around the world that coal mining and generation sites are ‘monster waste generators’ of the worst kind,” said Lisenby. “These coal waste facilities are ticking time bombs if they are not properly constructed to withstand large rainfall events, which are already increasing in frequency, duration and intensity in line with climate science predictions."

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The coal industry generates massive amounts of waste that can contain a wide array of materials dangerous to human health and the environment including heavy metals like arsenic, boron, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, manganese, selenium and thallium.

Dr. Aaron Bernstein, instructor in pediatrics at Harvard University Medical School said:

"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 mobilized by floods as we saw in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. 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."

Men plunged into the stream to dive and collect coal while women stand on shore to carry coal. Photo credit: Vietnamnet

Cam Pha City has already been flooded with an avalanche of coal mining waste and a second community is being evacuated (see map here). News photos and video footage from Cam Pha show men, women and children wading through thick mud contaminated with coal waste as they flee their homes.

Waterkeeper Alliance has experienced a dramatic rise in the number of coal-related water spill disasters we have responded to since 2008. These include:

  • The largest known coal ash waste spill in world history in December of 2008 from the Tennessee Valley Authority coal plant in Kingston, Tennessee. See this story for an interview with Donna Lisenby, Waterkeeper Alliance's Clean & Safe Energy campaign manger who was the first person to collect samples at the spill proving that it contaminated the Emory river with toxic heavy metals.
  • The largest coal slurry spill in Canadian history on Halloween night in 2013. See stories here, here and here written by Waterkeeper Alliance Clean Safe Energy campaign manager.
  • A January 2014 coal chemical spill into the Elk River in West Virginia that poisoned the drinking water of 300,000 people. See story here.
  • The largest coal ash spill in North Carolina history by Duke Energy into the Dan River in February of 2014. See stories here, here, here and here that document Waterkeeper Alliance's response to that spill and all the toxins found as a result of our water testing. The Dan River spill and ongoing investigation by Waterkeeper Alliance into illegal coal water pollution by Duke Energy at other sites in North Carolina resulted in their criminal conviction for nine clean water act violations.
  • This is a story about how Waterkeeper Alliance responds when disasters like these strike.

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"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

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At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.