The Lao government ordered a factory in the capital Vientiane that recycles 80 tons of spent beer malt a day to shut down after its owners failed to control pollution from the process, RFA’s Lao Service has learned.
“We have suffered from the bad smell for over a year since the factory started operations,” Doung village chief Sinakhone Khottaphome told RFA’s Lao Service.
“The leftover malt is left in the yard, not kept in the safe warehouses,” he added. “So when the rain comes it flows into the fields and pollutes the water.”
The factory in the Saysettha district’s Doung village recycles spent brewer’s malt from the Lao Brewing Company breweries and exports the used grains to Thailand’s Charoen Pokphand Foods, where it is turned into animal feed.
Owned by Xaiyadeth Vongxay, the Lao factory began operations in May 2015, and has been the subject of many complaints and several provincial shutdown orders.
Xaiyadeth Vongxay is the son of Kissana Vongxay, the chairman of the Lao Brewery Company that brews the popular Beerlao and other beverages.
Ownership of the company is split between the Lao government and the Carlsberg brewing giant. It claims a 99 percent share of the Lao beer market.
While recycling spent beer malt is generally considered an environmentally sustainable practice, it also creates pollution on its own.
Spent beer malt is wet when it comes out of the brewing process and it can spoil rapidly causing both a horrible stench and water pollution, while smoke emerging from dryer stacks causes odor pollution problems.
“The factory releases stinking smoke from burning coals in the production, and that seriously troubles the villagers,” Sinakhone Khottaphome said. “If the factory is still here, villagers cannot live.”
Illegally built and poorly operated
Problems with the Lao spent beer grain facility go beyond the just the process, as regulators in the country found the factory was built illegally and is operated without the proper environmental and business licenses.
On Oct. 5, the Ministry of Natural Resources department of pollution control issued a notice confirming that the factory is located in the wrong place because it is too close to the nearby community.
The factory’s owners have also ignored repeated orders to clean up their act.
On July 29, the Vientiane Administration Office ordered the factory to stop operations, and on September 9, Vientiane’s Industrial and Commerce Department also ordered the factory to cease operations. The Saysettha governor’s office also issued a stop order on Sept. 30.
All were ignored by the factory’s owners.
While the more than 300 families affected by the factory hope the latest stop order is more effective, Sinakhone Khottaphome said a truck delivered more spent beer malt to the factory on Oct. 12 but had yet to process it.
“During this time, the factory stopped production after Mr. Chaleun Yiapaoher came to order the shut-down on Oct. 11, but the villagers are now keeping a close eye on it,” he said. “Yesterday [Oct. 12] villagers saw a truck transporting the leftover malt to the factory, but production did not start up, yet.”
Beer grain glut
Regulation of spent beer grains is controversial worldwide. Breweries in the U.S. and the U.K., where environmental regulations are more robust, have been fined or installed controls to maintain air quality. World brewer’s grain production worldwide is thought to be in the range of 35-40 million tons.
In one California case, the craft brewery Firestone Walker Brewing Co. installed $1 million worth of pollution controls, even though the California Air Resources Board (CARB) found the air quality acceptable, according to The Tribunein San Louis Obispo, Calif.
While the CARB may have deemed pollution levels there to be acceptable, it also found that the pollution can still cause health effects that include headache, nausea and irritability. At higher concentrations, gas from the process is considered an “irritant,” producing symptoms such as eye irritation, cough and sore throat.
The amount of spent brewers grain varies with the size of the brewery, but it is unlikely that the Firestone Walker Brewing Co. produced anywhere near the amount of spent grain that is processed by the Doung village factory.