BANGKOK -- Laos formally began building a controversial hydroelectric dam on the Mekong River on Wednesday, despite comments from the country's prime minister that the project had been delayed.
"We held the groundbreaking ceremony today," said Rewat Suwanakitti, the deputy managing director of Xayaburi Power, the company leading the project. "The Lao authorities told us that we could begin construction."
The dam is the first of several planned for the river, and is being built despite concerns that the dam will irreparably harm fish stocks, which are an important food source for millions of people in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Electricity produced by the Xayaburi dam, named for the surrounding province in Laos, will be exported to Thailand, and Laotian officials say they are counting on billions of dollars in revenue from the project.
The prime minister of Laos, Thongsing Thammavong, told The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday that the project was awaiting further study. But at the dam site, preliminary work has already reached an advanced stage. The Thai construction company in charge of building the dam, CH. Karnchang, has been carving roads through the jungle to the remote site and putting equipment in place for two years.
The groundbreaking ceremony on Wednesday included senior officials from the Laotian government and diplomats from Vietnam and Cambodia, Mr. Rewat said.
Environmentalists have accused Laos of ignoring criticism of the dam and pushing ahead with construction. The governments of Vietnam and Cambodia, which are downstream from the site, have called for a delay until environmental concerns are addressed.
The State Department said on Monday that it was concerned that neighboring countries had not reached a consensus on the dam and that the severity of its environmental impact was still unknown.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.