The southern province has the highest titanium reserves in the country at an estimated 599 million tonnes, or 92 per cent of total national reserves.
However, exploiting it without taking mitigating and environmental restoration measures has left the mines constantly covered with thick layers of dust that badly pollute the air.
Tam, a retired officer of the provincial Department of Natural Resources and Environment told People’s Public Security newspaper: “The miners have to restore the mining areas but they’ve not done that. They’ve just haphazardly planted some trees.”
Most of the newly-replanted trees in the mining areas have died, and others have been uprooted.
Apart from spoiling the local landscape, titanium mining has also contaminated water sources.
More than 30 years ago, when Phu settled down in Long Son-Mui Ne, underground water was plentiful and tasty. Five years ago, the polluted water killed hundreds of his cashew trees. Watermelons grown by him this season have been smaller than in previous seasons because of water shortage.
“Now I only plant short-season fruits and vegetables in the rainy season,” he said.
Near Phu’s house, another resident named Lien said her groundwater had become saline, and she had to go far away from the titanium mines to get fresh water.
More than 200 households in Hoa Thang Commune, Bac Binh District have seen their water turn reddish.
Residents said that after they complained, investors in the mining projects arranged for tap water supply, but sold at a high VND6,000 per cubic metre.
Professor Dang Trung Thuan, president of Vietnam’s Geochemistry Association said that when exploiting titanium in open air, holes are dug and the waste piles up, leading to terrain imbalances. Layers of sand and rust will fly out west, he said, adding that it would gather on National Highway 1 sections and cover fields and gardens.
"The more serious risk facing local communities is radioactive contamination," he said.
According to an environmental assessment report covering Hong Phong and Hoa Thang communes in Bac Binh District, radioactive levels in waste water, underground water and coastal sea water samples is three to nine times higher than permissible levels.
Titanium and zircon exploitation needs a large amount of water, and this is a problem when water sources are very scarce. The exploitation contaminates water with radioactive substances, said Associate Professor Doan Van Canh, president of Vietnam’s Association of Hydrological Geology.
Terrain change caused by titanium mining occurs mostly in open mining areas. Waste dumps build up hills 200 to 300 metres high. These then flow down and fill up streams, valleys and fields in the nearby areas. Heavy rains transport this mud flow into lower lands, including agricultural land, damaging houses, fields and gardens.
While all mining projects require proper environmental impact assessments, related regulations are violated with impunity because of loose management by authorized agencies.
For instance, the Duc Canh Limited Company was licensed to mine an area of 64.5ha in Bac Binh District, exploiting 44.6 tonnes over 14.5 years. However, the company’s operations were suspended in September 2016 for failing to follow activities committed to in the environmental impact assessment report.
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, instead of banning the violating company completely, allowed it to open a new mine in February this year.
Officials also approved increasing the mine’s output five times from 44.6 tonnes to 219,800 tonnes in the same exploitation period, a decision experts say contravenes Governmental regulations, which require any change in exploiting reserves to go along with due adjustments in mining time.
Besides, most investors ignore safety precautions on protecting waste containers and reservoirs, as mentioned in the environmental assessment reports. That is the main reason leading to reservoir breaches and “environmental incidents,” the paper says.
It cites experts as saying the socio-economic effectiveness of titanium mining projects has to met expectations.
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment has estimated 599 million tonnes of titanium reserves worth some $139 billion. However, according to Dr Nguyen Thanh Son of the Vietnam National Coal-Mineral Industries Holding Corporation Limited, this is not accurate.
When the titanium is processed into commercial products, the profit is just 27 per cent, which means $139 billion is reduced to over $3.7billion.
Meanwhile, Binh Thuan Province has developed strengths in renewable energy and “non-smoking” industries like eco-tourism that are environmentally friendly and deliver higher economic benefits. The “non-smoking” industry makes up 10 per cent of GDP, higher than oil and gas, employs three times more people than finance and banking, four times more people than natural resource mining and six times more people than the manufacturing industry.
The report quotes Phan Dinh Nha of the Consultant and Development Institute as saying titanium exploitation contributed about VND263 billion per year to the State budget from 2011 to 2016.
However, profits earned from tourism, wind, solar energy are 2.9 times higher than this, he added. He also said that eco-tourism development helped the nation adapt to climate change while titanium exploitation polluted water sources and exhausted other natural resources.
Another huge problem is the overlap between titanium mining planned areas and 33 other projects.
Nguyen Manh Hung, secretary of the Binh Thuan Party Committee, said titanium planning was very necessary in the past, but not appropriate anymore, as it hinders socio-economic development. The mining must be adjusted towards more practical and effective ways, he said.
He said the exploitation must harmonize benefits of the country, the State, community and miners. Now, the province has more than 750sq.m of titanium ore, which means other tourism, renewable resources and hi-tech agriculture projects are suspended because of the overlap, inflicting heavy losses on the province.
Local authorities have proposed that a Prime Minister appointed working group adjusts titanium mining plans. Authorized agencies are reviewing the plans already.
Under existing plans, houses and other constructions and developments are not allowed on areas where titanium ore has been discovered.
He said investors who have completed their permitted mining were supposed to close the mines and restore the area, but several had not done this work well, while some had gone bankrupt. The province should, therefore, review the issue thoroughly, he added.