Climate of change: Green versus black

Living in the shadow of a coal-fired power plant

Every morning, dust from a nearby coal-powered power plant covers everything around Mrs Nguyen Thi Thu's shop. She has to clean the furniture twice and decide if the air is clean enough to dry fish to sell to customers.
The Duyen Hai Coal-Fired Power Plant Complex faces complaints from residents about coal ash from the smoke stacks, as well as dust from coal slag heaps. "In the windy season, there is no way I can dry fish. The coal slag is everywhere," says shopkeep
The Duyen Hai Coal-Fired Power Plant Complex faces complaints from residents about coal ash from the smoke stacks, as well as dust from coal slag heaps.PHOTO: LAN PHUONG FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES
The Duyen Hai Coal-Fired Power Plant Complex faces complaints from residents about coal ash from the smoke stacks, as well as dust from coal slag heaps. "In the windy season, there is no way I can dry fish. The coal slag is everywhere," says shopkeep
"In the windy season, there is no way I can dry fish. The coal slag is everywhere," says shopkeeper Nguyen Thi Thu, adding that the air is often just too filthy.PHOTO: LAN PHUONG FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

Vietnamese irked by air pollution from filthy plants built to fuel rapid economic growth

Shopkeeper Nguyen Thi Thu feels she is fighting a losing battle. Dust from a nearby coal-fired power plant coats everything and each morning she has to decide if the air is clean enough to dry fish to sell to customers. Often, the air is just too filthy, she says.

Mrs Thu lives in southern Vietnam in coastal Duyen Hai district, Tra Vinh Province. Just across the road is the 4,305 megawatt (MW) Duyen Hai Coal-Fired Power Plant Complex that started operation in 2015 and has since been expanded.

Local residents complain about coal ash from the smoke stacks, as well as dust from coal slag heaps.

"In the windy season, there is no way I can dry fish. The coal slag is everywhere. I'm afraid that those who buy and eat my fish would fall sick," she said as she pointed at the drying board while laying out fish during a rare clear morning at her house in Mu U hamlet, Dan Thanh commune.

Coal slag is the fine black residue that is left over from burning coal. Such filthy power stations produce thousands of tonnes of the material and it has to be stored carefully before it is disposed of or recycled.

Mrs Thu is among many in southern Vietnam unhappy about rising air pollution caused by the government's rush to build coal-fired power plants to fuel the nation's rapid economic growth. Farmers and fishermen complain of reduced yields and catches. Some locals also complain of respiratory illnesses.

  • 52

  • Number of coal-fired power plants Vietnam plans to have, up from 19 in 2015. Of these, 15 will be built in the Mekong Delta region in the south, one of the world's top rice-growing areas.

  • 15m

    Number of tonnes of coal slag reserves in Vietnam in 2016, covering more than 700ha. Efforts to recycle the material have become a major topic of discussion among environmentalists.

According to the government's National Power Development Plan, also called the adjusted Seventh Plan, Vietnam plans to have 52 coal-fired power plants, up from 19 in 2015. Of these, 15 will be built in the Mekong Delta region in the south, one of the world's top rice-growing areas.

The rapid expansion of coal-fired power plants has sparked concern outside Vietnam, too, because of the large amount of greenhouse gas emissions the power stations will produce, stoking climate change.

In 2016, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim urged greater efforts to fight climate change. Among these was "to slow down the growth of coal-fired power plants, across Asia in particular", he said in a speech. He suggested greater investment in solar energy to quickly change the energy mix even in the poorest nations.

Dozens of coal-fired power plants will also make Vietnam dependent on coal imports.

"Under the power development plan, the country will need to import 85 million tonnes of coal to supply all the coal-fired power plants. Importing coal in such large amounts will make Vietnam dependent on foreign sources. The national power security will not be guaranteed," said Mr Tran Dình Sinh, deputy director of Green Innovation and Development Centre (GreenID), a Vietnamese environmental non-governmental organisation.

PROTESTS OVER POLLUTION

In the countryside, anger runs deep over the pollution.

In April 2015, thousands of people in Tuy Phong District, Binh Thuan Province, blocked National Highway 1A to protest against coal dust pollution from the Vinh Tan power plant complex, which is being built in phases. Once completed, the complex would generate 6,224 MW, or about half of Singapore's total power generating capacity.

The protests near Vinh Tan turned into serious clashes with local police, leading the deputy prime minister to order the plant's operators to solve the pollution problem. But anger has persisted and protests flared again in June this year, despite the participants facing the risk of being jailed.

Government officials say they have been trying to address the local residents' concerns.

The government of Tra Vinh Province, where the Duyen Hai power plant complex is located, confirmed there used to be "effects to the nearby residential area" and that there have been complaints.

"Years before, when there were strong winds, and the plant management did not spray water or compress the coal slag carefully, there might be an effect on local people. Currently, all these activities are complied (with) strictly," said Mr Tran Anh Dung, deputy president of Tra Vinh Province, when asked about the environmental impact of the Duyen Hai complex.

"The coal slag has been recycled to produce construction materials, such as bricks, tiles, roofing materials ... There are many firms which have come up with the demand to buy the coal slag from Duyen Hai power station," Mr Dung said.

According to the Ministry of Construction, there were 15 million tonnes of coal slag reserves in 2016, covering more than 700ha, and efforts to recycle the material have become a major topic of discussion among environmentalists.

CHILDREN'S HEALTH AFFECTED

For those living in the shadow of the Duyen Hai complex, things aren't improving fast enough.

Mrs Nguyen Bich Tuyen owns 20,000 sq m of shrimp farms a few hundred metres from the power plant. She said she can no longer pump the river water into her shrimp ponds.

"It is too seriously polluted since the plant started its operation. Instead, we use half of our ponds as water reserves. We pump water back and forth between ponds, using chemicals or drugs to treat the water so that the shrimps can live. It costs us much more since the prices of chemicals are high."

Air pollution is also a serious concern. "In the dry season, it is so dusty that my family cannot breathe. I have to wash bedsheets, pillow covers and blankets very often," she told The Sunday Times recently.

A fisherman who lives in Mu U hamlet said his neighbours had abandoned their houses near the power plant.

The man, who did not want to be identified, said: "In the windy season, ash flies directly into my house. The air is so suffocating. My granddaughter has been in the hospital for two weeks and is diagnosed with bronchopneumonia. All children here have some disease (in their) lungs ... or nose."

He said he had to travel much farther out to sea to find enough fish.

"Some years ago, we just sailed about 1km off the coast, there would be a lot of fish to catch. However, there is no fish living there any more, especially near the coal-fired plant. I have to sail several nautical miles farther to get fish," he said.

 
 

GreenID said large coal-fired power stations use millions of cubic metres of water from rivers or the sea for cooling. When the water is released, it is about 40 deg C and has contaminants that reduce oxygen in the water.

"This water will destroy the environment nearby, and fish will disappear," Mr Tran Dinh Sính explained. He added that coal-fired power plants also produce particulate matter and toxic chemicals such as sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide as well as carbon monoxide.

The fine particulate matter gets deep into the lungs and can cause serious illnesses like cancer, asthma or heart disease, he added.

In a sign that the government might be listening to the health and environmental concerns, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said in July this year there was great potential to develop less polluting gas-fired power projects in the Mekong Delta.

He made the remarks during a reception for investors seeking to build a 3,200 MW liquefied natural gas (LNG) power plant in Bac Lieu Province. The LNG proposal came after the province rejected a plan for a coal-fired power plant, VN Express reported.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 25, 2018, with the headline 'Living in the shadow of a coal-fired power plant'. Print Edition | Subscribe