Flipped truck spills sulfuric acid into Lao tributary of Mekong River

Residents are barred from drinking or bathing in the water, and many of the fish are dead.
By RFA Lao
Flipped truck spills sulfuric acid into Lao tributary of Mekong River A tanker truck that was carrying sulfuric acid is seen after it overturned April 3, 2024 near the town of Luang Prabang in northern Laos.
Department of Public Works and Transport of Luang Prabang province

A tanker truck carrying sulfuric acid from northwestern Laos to a Chinese rare earth mining company flipped over on Wednesday, spilling its contents into a tributary of two major rivers and devastating the local ecosystem, residents said.

The accident, which occurred at a gas station in Phouxang village, near the seat of Luang Prabang province, highlights lax oversight of foreign investment in Laos, where companies flock to exploit the country’s natural resources with little regard for their impact on the environment and local communities.

An eyewitness to the spill who, like others interviewed for this report, spoke on condition of anonymity due to security concerns, told RFA Lao that the acid had flowed into an area creek before continuing downstream to the Khan River, which passes through the town of Luang Prabang, and into the Mekong River.

“All kinds of fish, both big and small, have died,” he said, noting that authorities had issued a provincial-wide ban on entering the rivers, collecting water to drink from them, or eating locally caught fish.

“After the truck flipped over, chemicals flowed … [into] the rivers … Many people said that the chemical was sulfuric acid being transported to a mining operation.”

The truck had been transporting the sulfuric acid from a plant in Oudomxay province to China's Kuang Jian Sin Sengsavang Rare Earth Development Company in Xieng Khouang province.

A 35-year-old resident of Phouxang village told RFA that the accident caused “a lot of smoke … like burning trash,” and said it had led to the worst pollution of the Khan River in her lifetime.

Impact on health

A resident of nearby Hian village noted that a bridge across the Khan River supports a pipe that supplies water to the area.

“I hope that the acid doesn’t seep into the water pipe,” she said. “It’s concerning because it’s very hot this time of the year and children regularly bathe in the river. Some of them saw a lot of fish floating … and may have eaten them before the warning was issued.”

The company that manages water for Luang Prabang township issued a notice to the public saying that the spill had occurred far from its plant and had not affected the urban supply.

An official from Luang Prabang province’s natural resources and environmental department confirmed the release of “some kind of chemicals” into area waterways that had “killed a lot of fish.”

He said that the public had been forbidden from water-related activities “because the chemicals can have a dire impact on people’s health.”

Another provincial official told RFA that authorities are testing samples of the water to determine how to proceed.

Plant not liable

RFA spoke with an employee of the plant that produced the sulfuric acid in the flipped tanker who said that once the chemicals are loaded for transport, their company is no longer liable for any accidents.

“At that point, it's the shipping and mining companies that are responsible,” he said.

“However, we’re monitoring the impact of the spill on the people and the environment,” he added, noting that the site of the accident had been cleared by midnight on Wednesday.

The employee said that while sulfuric acid is very toxic, its strength becomes diminished once it is diluted with water.

He said his plant only supplies sulfuric acid to mining companies that are authorized by the Lao Ministry of Industry and Commerce.

Attempts by RFA to contact Kuang Jian Sin Sengsavang Rare Earth Development Company, the Chinese mining company, went unanswered by the time of publication.

An official from the Xieng Khouang government confirmed that the firm is mining rare earth in the province.

Rare earth mining

Rare earth minerals are important in the production of high-end technology such as cell phones, computers, and satellite and aerospace technology, with much of the international trade in the minerals controlled by China.

Foreign-invested farming, mining, and development projects in Laos have sparked friction over cases of environmental pollution and land often taken without proper compensation, leaving villagers fearing retaliation if they speak out.

In 2022, Lao government officials cleared China’s Tong Lee Seung Industrial Development Company to dig for rare earths on farm and grazing land in Xieng Khouang province’s Phaxay district.

Much of the land was already in use for farming and grazing cattle, prompting a dispute over compensation.

China is Laos’ largest foreign investor and aid provider, and its second-largest trade partner after Thailand.

Translated by RFA Lao. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.


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