Coal Ash Waste Increases in Viet Nam

HA NOI (Viet Nam) - Evidence shows that although coal waste from thermal power plants in Viet Nam has increased, the country still hasn’t made any meaningful movement towards utilization or industry reform. With density of 45 tonnes per square kilometer of cinder and coal ash, Viet Nam ranks at the top of the list in landfilling of coal ash, just below China. 

Further studies show that Viet Nam currently has approximately twenty coal fired power plants who contribute to the current fifteen million tonnes of ash that is being discharged annually. This number is expected to double in less than ten years. 

Recent measures to address this matter include a formal request from the Prime Minister to implement coal and ash treatment equipment in all plants, and to bring into operation by 2020. The follow up to this request was to be an undertaking by the Ministry of Construction, to work with industry organizations to create standards and regulations for this transition. Neither standards for managing this change nor incentivization for companies switching to green waste management practices has been issued. 

Among the many disappointed with current practices for fly and coal ash management is current deputy head at Binh Thuan Province’s Department of Science Technology, Nguyen Van Nhon. Mr. Van Nhon condemns the current method of burying the waste of thermal power plants, as it not only negatively affect’s the land and water quality, but is considerably wasteful considering the demand for these ashes in parts of the world not too far from Viet Nam’s borders. 

Winh Tan 2 plant in Binh Thuan is notably under scrutiny for its practices this year, taking no efforts to change their practices even after large groups protesting their plants and a formal charge of 66,000 USD from the government. 

Industry and academic leaders are calling for immediate action regarding the lack of change in coal-fired power plants’ waste management. Industry changes require cooperation from all sides in order to be effective, as witnessed in the smokestack industries of China, India and the USA. The first step is to create preferential policies for waste treatment measures adopted by power plants. Secondly, the government needs to strengthen inspection protocols and reprimand companies that violate the Prime Minister’s new waste management reform. These steps will hopefully encourage the functioning power plants to find interested buyers of fly ash and reduce the exploitation of Viet Nam’s natural resources.

Smokestack Industries in China Face Serious Problems

Gansu, Northern China

Due to overcapacity and slowing demand throughout China’s core building materials industries, regulators have been under pressure to cut power prices. Bloomberg News reports that in some regions, the rates were expected to decrease by 0.03 yuan per kilowatt-hour. This small reduction represents significant savings to aluminum, cement and steel-manufacturing companies, whose power usage represents over 40% of production costs.

Regulators assert this reduction comes at a justifiable time, since coal prices have also decreased significantly over the past year. This reform could potentially help relieve stress from some crucial industries and keep some doors from closing. The move has already been made in Gansu province, whose state-owned Liancheng smelter is currently receiving decreased power prices. 

What appears to be a welcomed relief to smokestack industries may also have dire repercussions. Due to overcapacity, companies are attempting to pass their savings on to the buyers by lowering aluminum prices. The reduction will bring down aluminum prices to a six-year low at just under 8,900 yuan per ton. The fear now is that this new policy will undermine current energy/environmental policies that encourage energy conservation. 

Aluminum, steel and cement are the most power hungry industries in China and therefore are the main users of high polluting coal; the cause of the country’s CO2 emissions and air/water pollution. China has been discouraging the expansion of these industries as far back as 2004 with power pricing differentiation. These did little to dissuade investment from these industries. Since the four trillion yuan stimulus program of 2009, China’s smelters are operating at a loss. Ninety percent of aluminum smelters have excess inventory and are unable to support their current capacity. Cement and steel industries are at similar annual losses; production for cement dropped 4.6% while crude steel dropped 2.2% (The National Bureau of Statistics). 

A combination of regulatory, market and environmental policy reformation is necessary to address this issue. Even with a lack of carbon tax, a surplus of coal and industrial overcapacity, the power price cuts seem likely to continue.

Industry Highlights China's Growing Coal Ash Problem

By Michael Standaert

Oct 1st — If you know where to look and what to look for, zooming in on nearly any coal-fired power plant in China from a Google Earth satellite image will yield stark images of leftover residuals from coal combustion piling high in landfills near the facilities.

Up to 1.5 billion metric tons of coal ash—mostly from the bottom ash that falls down after coal is burned, or fly ashthat is captured in the stacks as the particulate matter rises with the heat and later scrubbed out—is stockpiled in China, making it the country's No. 1 industrial solid waste by volume.

“There is a very unique situation with coal ash in China, and unique solutions need to be customized to the problem,” said David Harris, chairman of the Asian Coal Ash Association.

Of the nearly 600 million metric tons generated annually in the country, 30 percent to 40 percent end up in landfills, while the rest is utilized as a component for cement, concrete and building materials such as bricks, fuel for the building boom continuing in the more prosperous eastern part of the country.

By comparison, the U.S. generated around 110 million metric tons of coal ash in 2012.

There are no comprehensive national regulations in China regarding the storage of coal ash that requires bottom lining of landfills to prevent potentially toxic heavy metals from leaching into nearby fields or into groundwater sources, nor are there requirements to cap or cover the ash to prevent blowing dust from getting into the atmosphere.

Some estimates in China show that around 20 percent of the small particulate matter (PM-2.5) in the atmosphere—the particles most damaging to the lungs—is from coal ash blown off of landfills, contributing to air pollution in major northern cities such as Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai.

The U.S. has regulations to ensure the structural stability of coal ash landfills and to protect groundwater after a number of recent incidents of coal ash spills, including the 2014 Dan River spill from a Duke Energy Facility near Eden, N.C.

Satellite Images

At a coffee shop in the south China city of Shenzhen, where the Asian Coal Ash Association is based, Harris shows Bloomberg BNA satellite images of some of sites, highlighting a coastal area on the west side of Qinzhou Bay, where a facility supplying power to the Guangxi-Zhuang autonomous region sits.

Images seem to show that coal ash is spreading into nearby fields, and Harris said coal ash also is being dumped into the ocean for coastal reclamation for eventual development.

About 1,500 miles due north in Shuozhou, Shanxi province is the heart of the country's coal belt and a region often shrouded in severe air pollution. There, the local municipal government and coal power industry are attempting to change the image of the area and industry, which Greenpeace targeted in a 2010 campaign.

At the time, the environmental group released damaging images of issues at 14 coal power facilities in the area, including coal ash dust blowing off massive landfills.

New Uses

At an annual Asian Coal Ash Association conference from Sept. 22–24 in Shuozhou, Wang Anpang, party secretary of Shuozhou, said the municipality is promoting the utilization of coal ash.

It is establishing three industrial solid waste demonstration clusters with around 50 businesses to pilot techniques for using coal ash, which range from steamed bricks to processing ultrafine fly ash with higher mineral contents that can be used in a variety of industries.

Site Bloomberg BNA visited after the conference showed some of the companies using the ash for bricks and for a stucco material sprayed onto walls.

Ci Yuansheng, an expert on coal ash at the Institute of Technical Information for the Building Materials Industry of China, said about 44 percent of the coal ash being used goes toward making cement, with 28 percent for building materials and 16 percent for concrete.

“This coal ash waste brings a lot of possible environmental risk but also a potential resource,” said Chen Guanhu, vice director of the Shanxi Economic and Information Commission.

Chen said it was not a provincial policy to reduce coal ash waste and to promote its use, but the “low value added and low tech content,” as well as the “small market size” for the companies using the materials, mean that “it is not as widely used around China as it could be. We need more technological innovation to improve the use.”

‘Made in China.'

A national policy to modernize manufacturing called Made in China 2025 that the State Council launched in May could spur further utilization of coal ash, as recycling resources and industrial solid waste were mentioned in the documents, said Li Li, deputy director of the Energy Savings and Resource Center of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.

A regional disparity has been created regarding utilization of coal ash, conference speakers said.

While rates of use in the east are at least 80 percent, in the central parts of the country, rates of use range between 30 percent to 80 percent. And in the western region, where more coal-fired power facilities are going into operation in areas such as the Xinjiang-Uighur autonomous region, rates are often less than 30 percent.

Zhai Guanjie, director of the Coal Ash Research Institute at Dezhou University in the eastern province of Shandong, told Bloomberg BNA that in his province “most if not all of the coal ash is being utilized” and construction is the main driver.

Potential Markets

The prime environmental issue with coal ash in China at the moment is dust blown from poorly covered dumpsites.

“Coal ash in China is going to become a bigger issue than it is today,” said Boyd Ramsey, representing the AmericanCoal Ash Association at the conference.

He explained that part of the reason is an unintended consequence of China requiring stronger limits on airborne emissions from coal-fired power stacks. Those emissions controls can result in more fly ash building up in the stacks.

Ramsey's company, GSE Environmental Lining Technology Co. Ltd., has set up operations in Suzhou, near Shanghai, to provide dumpsite protections as they become needed.

Products like cement made of 95 percent fly ash, which is being brought to China by CeraTech Inc., also could help, said company Executive Vice President Mark Wasilko. CeraTech set up a test facility in Guangdong province that was able to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions from a coal power facility that needed to add calcium to the combustion process to enhance the fly ash.

To contact the reporter on this story: Michael Standaert in Shenzhen, China, at [email protected]

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Greg Henderson at [email protected]