The Song Hong Energy Company, an affiliate of state-owned mining conglomerate Vinacomin, has applied for permission to launch a pilot mining project in Hung Yen province, some 30 kilometres southeast of Hanoi.

"We are just waiting for the permission of the prime minister," said Nguyen Thanh Son, director of Song Hong.

The 6.5-million-dollar pilot project would mine 1,800 tons of coal over a six-month period. To minimize the environmental impact, the project is to use a technology that gasifies the coal underground.

Geologists estimate coal deposits in Vietnam's Red River delta at 210 billion tons, of which 65 billion could be exploited. The delta produces roughly 20 per cent of Vietnam's rice.

Vietnam's coal mines are centered in the coastal province of Quang Ninh, which has suffered severe environmental damage from open-pit mining. In one town studied by the Hanoi University of Natural Sciences, coal-dust contamination was hundreds of times higher than safe levels.

Nguyen Phu Vu, the vice rector of Vietnam's University of Mining and Geology, was cautious about the Red River delta mining project.

"We need to study the geography of the region more carefully to avoid environmental pollution and food safety problems, if we start mining in a larger area of the delta," Vu said.

Vu is a member of a committee formed to study the environmental impact of mining in the delta by the Ministry of Industry and Trade and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.

It was not yet clear whether foreign partners would participate in the pilot project. Son said Japan's Marubeni Corporation and Australia's Linc Energy had expressed an interest.

Deutsche Presse Agentur - March 9, 2010