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The Red River Basin Coal Scheme: Let’s proceed carefully, and above all, not put rice lands at risk

19 October 2009 | 03:00:00 AM

VietNamNet continues its coverage of debate over the Red River Delta coal basin scheme with analysis by a leading geologist and a National Assembly deputy.


VietNamNet continues its coverage of debate over the Red River Delta coal basin scheme with analysis by a leading geologist and a National Assembly deputy.
Doctor of Geology Nguyen Sy Quy, former Ministry of Industry expert and a member of the the Vietnam Union of Scientific and Technological Associations (VUSTA) critics’ council:
Reserves of coal in the Red River Delta basin are estimated at up to 210 billion tons, with 100 coal faces of several metre thick each. Our biggest worry is that coal mining activities could cause the earth to sink, turning the Red River Delta, now the north’s rice basket, into a salt water lake. Some experts that if care is not taken, we may also have to move local residents to another place.

Such land depression will not happen immediately, but in a long process. One day, the vast delta will be sunken in salt water.  The soil in the Red River Delta is spongy,l so it will not just sink where the mines are, but will be generally depressed. We cannot measure the damaging effect of that phenomenon.
However, this is just initial prediction.  The amount of subsidence depends on how we go about mining coal. 
The Vietnam Coal and Mineral Group (Vinacomin) wrote in its scheme that to prevent depression, it will fill up mining sites with soil taken from other places. This solution is ludicrous.  I don’t understand where they will get such a huge volume of soil. If they just fill the depression with any old dirt, I doubt it will be possible to immediately grow crops on that soil.
Besides subsidence, there are two other problems related to water and rock.
Related to water, according to a study, the volume of water flow into coal mines will be 20,000 cubic meters per hour.  Current technology would allow us to pump out around 6000 to 10,000 cubic meters of water per hour. If we cannot make mines dry, how can we exploit coal? That is a big problem.
Since the 1980s, Vietnam has wanted to know if we could exploit coal from the Red River Delta coal basin or not. We asked assistance from the our socialist friends in the Council of Mutal Economic Assistance (Comecon) but they said they were unable to help Vietnam.
In 1998-2001, Japan’s NEDO (New Energy Development Organization) conducted surveys of the coal basin but they said that they were unable to solve the water infiltration issue.  NEDO withdrew from the project after spending over $15 million on geological exploration.
We should not think simply that we only need to pump out the water that runs into coal mines. There is a high concentration of aluminum hydroxide in the water at the level of the coal seams  so it must be treated before it is pumped to the surface. Vinacomin’s scheme didn’t point out a convincing solution for this.
If we pump out water from deep mines, naturally we will create a vacuum that will cause sea water to infiltrate into the Red River Delta aquifer, which can change the entire floristic cover of the region. Vinacomin also needs to study this impact carefully.
We must test and verify data, especially hydrographic and geological data, before developing this coal basin.
Exploiting coal seams is a non-renewable activity with a duration, say, of a hundred years, and bearing many risks. Meanwhile, we have exploit our rice basket for thousands of years. Let’s test carefully. If we can exploit coal with high benefit without destroying our ability to produce rice, we should do, otherwise we should never exchange coal for rice.
Le Quoc Dung, a vice chairman of the National Assembly’s Economics Committee:
Vietnam’s need for energy is huge while resources of fuel are limited. It is predicted that Vietnam will become an importer of coal in the near future. Meanwhile, we have a 210 billion ton coal basin in the Red River Delta. I agree that we need sources of coal to solve our energy needs but there are many issues related to this coal basin.
The biggest thing is this coal mine is located in the Red River Delta, the country’s rice basket. Rice growing areas are strategically important for Vietnam. It is extremely difficult to mine and at the same time maintain rice land.
In addition, exploiting coal can cause a subsidence of the land.  Vinacomin said that it will fill up mining sites with soil but that’s not so easy because it won’t be possible to grow crops on this kind of soil.
Moreover, how will we deal with underground water and the ground environment? How about wastes discharged during the mining process? How can we pump out water from the mining sites and how can we treat it?
We can see that it is very complicated to treat the ground, underground and water environment. We can learn from the experience of other countries but we must notice that their environmental conditions are different from us. Their soil is hard, not spongy, and especially they don’t grow rice.
It is good to have resources of coal and it is also good if we can exploit that resource to serve the country. But my point of view is that we have to consider many roads.
We should first exploit coal on a pilot basis, in narrow scale and in a very careful manner and solve the above problems before we attempt to scale up production.
If we compare the value of rice and coal, rice will lose in the short term. But to produce rice, we need thousands of years for land consolidation. If we destroy the land to serve coal mining, the soil  may not recover for thousands of years. Coal mining can help improve the life of local people for several dozens of year but how can they live after that?
Our population is big but we haven’t that much land suitable for rice cultivation. Rice land is being reduced by urbanization and industrial development. At the same time, our need for food is higher and higher. So we have to esteem rice land.
The Government ought to report fully on these matters so that the members of the National Assembly have sufficient information to consider the pros and cons of this vast scheme.
Thu Ha – Hoang Phuong – Tu Minh 
(MONRE NET, 18/9/2009)

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