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After Lao rivers run red, authorities order iron mine to stop production

Authorities in Laos have ordered a Vietnamese mining company to suspend its operations after it polluted local waterways, causing two rivers to run red, local media reported.

The Company of Economic Cooperation in Vietnam (Coecco) runs a mining operation in the Boualapha district of Laos’ southern Khammouane province.

When “red water” began flowing down the Sa-A and Xe Noi Rivers starting on June 21, the governors of Khamouane and the downstream Savannakhet provinces, along with the minister of Natural Resources and Environment, inspected three Boualapha district mining operations, local outlet Next Media reported.

Investigators discovered that Coecco’s mine was to blame and also discovered the company had been conducting illegal mining activities. On June 27, the Ministry of Energy and Mines issued a notice that ordered Coecco to stop all operations until the company completes construction of a larger waste treatment facility.

“Pollution has been affecting many villages along the Sa-A and Xe Noi Rivers,” an official of Savannakhet’s Vilabouly district told RFA’s Lao Service on condition of anonymity to speak freely.

“The most affected are four villages — Nateu, Katae, Na Yom and Hoei Phai — here in Vilabouly district,” the official said.

The water turns red when the mines wash iron and release waste into the river, a resident of Nateu, who like the rest of the sources in this story, declined to be named for safety reasons, told RFA.

“The river water becomes red, undrinkable and unusable. Some villagers here who are rich can dig wells and get [uncontaminated] groundwater, but the poorer folks have no choice but to use the red water,” the Nateu resident said.

The red water in the facility overflows when it rains, the villager said.

Prior to the ministerial order to halt operations, authorities and villagers in Vilabouly district wrote a letter demanding Coecco stop polluting, but the company did nothing.

Bathing in the red water leaves residue on villagers’ bodies, a resident of Hoei Phai told RFA.

“I took a bath in the Sa-A River on the other day. The red water stuck to my body, my arms and my legs,” the Hoei Phai resident said.

“The governors of Khammouane and Savannakhet provinces and the minister came down here, so this week the company agreed to stop operations. The company previously ignored the demand of the district authorities,” the Hoei Phai resident said

A resident of Nong Kapad village in te Boulapha district told RFA that residents there have been less affected by pollution even though the mine is located in the district.

“We live far away from the rivers, but a lot of villages in the south, especially those four in Vilabouly district in Savannakhet, have been badly affected. They can’t drink the water or take baths in the rivers,” the Nong Kapad villager said.

The residents are unhappy about the red water, a Khammouane province Natural Resources and Environment Department official, who was part of the inspection team, told RFA.

“The company must improve the [waste] treatment system as required by the governors and the minister. The waste reservoir is too small and substandard, so that is why the waste is flowing down into the rivers,” the official said.

The official said that the inspection team did not discuss the issue of building wells for the residents when they met with Coecco.

When asked if the red water was toxic, the official responded, “All the information regarding this matter is kept by the inspecting committee.”

The Lao government gave the concession to Coecco for rights to extract iron ore in a five-hectare (12.3-acre) plot in Boualapha district in July 2021. So far, the company has produced 36,000 tons of ore.

Foreign-invested farming, mining and development projects in Laos have been touted as a boon for development and employment in the impoverished nation. But the projects have sparked friction over land taken without proper compensation, harsh labor conditions and environmental pollution.

Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Eugene Whong.