Dung visited state-owned mining company Vinacomin's Tan Rai aluminum smelting project in Lam Dong Province Tuesday. Dung said the project "plays an important role in promoting the country's industrialisation, modernisation and sustainable development," the state-run newspaper Tien Phong reported.

The aluminum factory will process ore from several new bauxite mines in Vietnam's Central Highlands run by the Chinese state aluminum company Chalco. Since January, scientists, National Assembly deputies and other prominent citizens have attacked the Chinese project on environmental and national security grounds, and criticised Chalco's employment of thousands of unskilled Chinese workers rather than Vietnamese ones.

The criticism led the government to officially suspend work on all but one of the mines pending an environmental impact review.

The Tan Rai factory, Vietnam's first aluminum smelter, is scheduled to begin operation in mid-2010, and is projected to generate over 100 million dollars per year in revenues.

Critics worry that runoff from the mines will damage the local coffee and cacao industries and ecologically rich forests, and negatively impact ethnic minorities who live in the region.

Retired general Vo Nguyen Giap, a hero of Vietnam's wars against France and the US, has written three letters to the prime minister opposing the mines as a Chinese foothold in the strategic area.

In June, lawyer Cu Huy Ha Vu sued Dung to stop the projects, alleging the projects violated several Vietnamese laws. The suit was rejected by a lower court, but Vu has appealed to the country's Supreme Court.

Vietnam's bauxite reserves are among the world's largest at an estimated 8 billion tonnes.

Bauxite is extracted from open-pit mines, requiring the replacement of topsoil before the land can be reforested or used for agriculture. The refining process creates large amounts of caustic red slurry, which must be contained so as not to pollute water sources.

Deutsche Presse Agentur - August 21, 2009