A Critical Response to Babe Romualdez’s column in the Philippine Star (Mining at a Standstill, 2 July 2013)

Dear Mr. Romualdez:

Your adamant pro-mining stance continues to puzzle me.  Since so many of my friends and family have taken such diametrically opposite and passionate sides, I set out to make a deeper study on this volatile issue.  I may not be learned enough to argue all the details, but I have sincerely tried to be objective about studying the effects of mining on this country.

I understand that the Philippines may be losing revenues, actual and projected, by pausing to study this too, but if the gains come at the cost of destroying the natural beauty and fragile stability of this volcanic archipelago forever, I am surprised that you continue to be so inflexible on your stance.

“Forever” simply does not allow for “second chances.”  And your column in yesterday’s paper contained a few statements I would like to probe a bit more:

BR: “But one department that really needs PNoy’s nudge and attention is the DENR, with the country losing out more than $1.5 billion in potential foreign investments from the mining industry, which continues to be at a standstill due to allowing the NGOs – who do nothing but complain and not pay taxes mind you – to unduly influence Secretary Mon Paje.”

What does paying taxes have to do with complaining?  Do you have to be an MVP or a Henry Sy before you have a right to be heard? Then somebody better tell that to Cardinal Tagle or my dad, both of whom have copious comments well worth listening to, despite a far smaller net worth.

Neither am I under the impression that Sec. Paje can be “unduly influenced” on any matter.

The Data from the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) show that from 2006 to the third quarter of 2010, the mining industry’s contribution to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) ranges only from one percent to 1.7 percent. Yet, over the same period, the mining contribution to exports ranges from 3.5 percent to 4.5 percent. (Ronalyn Olea, April 11, 2011 http://bulatlat.com/main/2011/04/11/philippine-mining-industry-a-source-of-profits-for-tncs-a-curse-to-communities/)

While proponents like you keep on saying that mining would provide jobs for Filipinos, MGB data reveal thatmining’s contribution to employment is only 0.5 percent from 2008 to third quarter of 2010. As of the third quarter of 2010, total exports of minerals and mineral products cost $1.3 billion. Yet, the total taxes, fees and royalties collected from mining companies in the same period amount to only $17.07 million. (Ronalyn Olea,April 11, 2011 http://bulatlat.com/main/2011/04/11/philippine-mining-industry-a-source-of-profits-for-tncs-a-curse-to-communities/)

[Mining’s] contributions towards government revenues, moreover, are far less than they could be because the Government’s friendly fiscal regime grants mining corporations “tax holidays” and claims little or nothing of the actual revenue – this regime, however, makes mining all the more profitable for mining corporations. (Goodland and Wicks, Philippines: Mining or Food?, 2008)

BR: “Compounding the issue is the sluggish pace in finalizing the new mining law. The country has not maximized the potential of the industry because of the discouraging environment, especially with anti-mining NGOs throwing every kind of accusation (oftentimes hyped-up) against big players.”

Seriously, REALLY?  “Every kind of accusation (oftentimes hyped-up)?”  It seems this blade cuts both ways.  And oftentimes, opposition is not just from NGOs but also from local governments (province, municipality and barangay) because local governments have become active in resisting mining entry and operations in their jurisdictions.

BR: “Illegal and small-scale miners are the culprits in destroying the environment with their irresponsible practices, yet they continue to proliferate, while the responsible players are demonized by NGOs which seem to hold sway over Environment officials.

Whoa! A little homework on the real value contribution of small-scale mining to the economy is needed here:

  • Contribution to annual national gold output (1993-1997): at least 45% (Tujan and Guzman 142.)
  • Share to the national gold output (1994): 12,372 KG or 45.72% (accounted for 10-20% of the world mineral production) (Haygood 4-5).
  • Total purchases of the Central Bank from small-scale sources (CY 2000): 21,4040 KG (58% of total gold production) (Mines and Geosciences Bureau, “Industry Profile) — data quoted from Dr. Giovanni Tapang in “Environment, Socioeconomic and Health Impacts of ASM” Conference on Artisanal and Small-scale mining in Mindanao, November 15-16 2012, Ateneo de Davao University.

These numbers ain’t peanuts!  It appears that the small-scale miners are almost equal with the big ones.

Several initiatives by NGOs and LGUs have been promulgated to make small-scale mining sustainable in economic, social and environmental aspects: Minahang Bayanihan Program in South Cotabato and initiatives of Cordillera People’s Alliance in the Cordillera.

And yet, little or no assistance from the National Government has been given to Small-scale miners. (cf: Conference Statement and Resolution, Conference on Artisanal and Small-scale mining in Mindanao, November 15-16 2012, Ateneo de Davao University)

BR: “A case in point is Philex Mining which was fined P1 billion for the tailings pond leak at Padcal, Benguet in August last year due to the unusual heavy rains. The company paid up and readily did everything to clean up and rehabilitate Balog Creek, complying with all the requirements set by the DENR/MGB.

THIS is where I started to willingly go over to your perceived Dark Side, I guess.  Because I was never against mining as much as I was militant for responsible mining.  The problem is that I have not seen evidence of anything but good intentions.  Lots of “nice tries, but no bananas.”

I need not give you a refresher course on the Tailing Pond 3 debacle, but maybe a little timeline review is helpful. Please review this because it really reads like a horror film:

August 2012, a breach in the lower portion of its Penstock A resulted in the discharge of voluminous amount of tailings from the tailings pond into Balog River down to Agno River and San Roque Dam. At least five (5) major incidents of discharge were reported from August 1 to September 13 (August 1, 4, 11 and 30, and September 13).

TP3 was constructed starting 1983 and was commissioned in 1992 after the collapse of TP2. The company said that TP3 lifespan ranges from 18-20 years. Given the estimated lifespan and capacity of the dam, TP3 should have been decommissioned at the earliest in 2010 but it continued to operate in 2012 until the TP3 happened in August of 2012.

PMC started operations in 1958 but it was only in 1967 that its Tailings Pond 1 (TP1) became operational. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) records say that TP1’s useful life was only 10 years but Philex decommissioned TP1 only in 1981, stretching use of the dam to 14 years. Tailings Pond 2 was immediately commissioned in the same year after the collapse of TP1. In January 1992, the dam walls of Philex TP2 collapsed because of foundation failure, resulting to the release of 80 million metric tons (MMT) of mine tailings.

The first TP3 spill on August 1, 2012 left a huge crater with an estimated radius of 30 kilometers. According to reports, the leakage released around 9.9 million metric tones (MMT) of sediments which is equivalent to a volume of 12 operational months. The spill covered 2.5 km long and 15 feet wide of Itogon’s Balog River with a thickness of 2-8 feet.

The Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) of the Cordillera Autonomous Region (EMB-CAR) estimated the volume of tailings discharged from August 1-14 at 6 MMT, while the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) pegged the discharge at 5 MMT. Based on the Summary and Recommendation on Mill Tailings Fee and Liabilities of Philex (MGB Report dated Sept 17, 2012), the total weight of solids discharged is 20,689,179.42 dry MT.

AGHAM compared the TP3’s release of mine tailings at 20 MMT to that of the Marcopper spill in Boac River in Marinduque in 1993. The PMC’s mine tailings spill is 12.5 times greater than the 1.6 MMT of mine tailings spill that happened in Marinduque.

The following are the summary of the environmental investigation by the Environmental Investigation Management Team.

  1. Mine Tailings Destruction The immediate manifestations of the environmental damage caused by TP3 breach were the smothering of marine life thriving in Balog River and the junction of Balog and Agno River brought about by mine tailings spill. It rendered the Balog River and the confluence of Balog and Agno River practically biologically dead.
  2. Heavy Metal Contamination The mine tailings was also proven to contain heavy metals that includes copper, zinc arsenic and cobalt that were found in impacts sites, the Balog River and the junction of Balog and Agno River. Copper is the most prevalent heavy metal that registered high concentration in the junction of Balog and Agno River, the highest value is 4.5 times the threshold limit.
  3. Prevalence of Various Illnesses in the Community and other Environmental ImpactsIn San Felipe West, the community experienced headache, chest pains and skin rashes. Some gold panners in San Nicolas, Pangsinan who drank water from the wells dug up beside Agno river had loose bowel movement and itchy sore throats during the TP3 incident. The communities from Sitio Pangbasan, an impact area of the mine tailings spill, observed the rise in river level comparable to flood levels during Typhoons Ondoy and Pepeng in the morning of August 2, a day after the first tailings spill from TP3.
  4. Adverse effects on livelihood Irrigation water from the river carried a whitish substance into the ricefields. Fisherfolks also observed decreased catch of carp fish right after the TP3 breach. Mine tailings spill rendered productive land contaminated with pollutants coming from the PMC’s mining operation based on the account of the community from Itogon, Benguet and San Nicolas and San Manual, Pangasinan.
  5. Violation of workers’ rights Informants claimed that all workers, including the ill, elderly and physically incapable, were forced to report to TP3 facility and Balog River. Miners were also exposed to all kinds of hazards such as lack of ventilation and personal protective equipment, resulting in the death of two employees and several accidents. These cases often go undocumented and denied by the PMC management.

from: Findings of the Environmental Investigation Mission on the impacts of the PHILEX Mining Corporation (PMC) mine tailings pond 3 Failure conducted by the Cordillera Peoples Alliance, Amianan Salakniban, KATRIBU Indigenous Peoples Partylist, RDC Kaduami, Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan- PNE), Center for Environmental Concerns-Philippines (CEC-Phils), Bantay Amianan, and AGHAM- Advocates of Science and Technology for the People

BR: “The rehabilitation efforts are paying off, because Balog Creek (in photo) has been cleaned of sediments, with silt traps and fishponds constructed for the tilapia fingerlings that would provide livelihood for the residents. We’re told that a P327-million spillway project is being built to ensure the safe movement of water from the Padcal tailings pond as it drains into Agno River in Pangasinan.”

So we can start destroying the lowlanders in Pangasinan?

BR: “An MGB order granted Philex four months to conduct urgent remediation and rehabilitation on its tailings facility whose safety and integrity has now been restored. However, the four-month period granted by the MGB ends this July 7 – but it’s still unclear whether the company will be allowed to resume regular operations – which it voluntarily stopped on the day the accidental leak was discovered in August last year.”

Looks like Philex will resume regular operations, with or without a green light.  They play to the letter of the law but do not seem to appreciate the long- term devastation even a small mistake might wreak on the ecology of this country.   What is important is that they make their money now before anyone can fight them on their turf… which of course they won’t be able to because it seems to be so well funded.

This kind of hemming and hawing/last-minute decision making, keeping everything and everyone hanging is a practice that government agencies like the DENR should stop. They have been monitoring the progress of the rehabilitation and clean up so they should see Balog Creek’s readiness to sustain marine life. In fact, the Benguet local government has issued a resolution last May urging MGB and DENR to extend the four-month temporary permit of Philex to operate for the benefit of the employees, families and other residents who were dislocated when the company stopped its operations.

Why do I want to cheer for the DENR?  Seems like a David and Goliath war, and it’s just tough finding the right rocks.

Philex is the mining industry’s top taxpayer, posting a record P2.38 billion in taxes in 2011 alone at the height of the company’s production.  Aside from these taxes that go directly to national coffers, the mining company also spends millions for its social development and management programs, over and above what is required by law. We doubt if the same can be the said for many of these anti-mining NGOs who might not even pay the correct taxes.

Mining is a flawed development plan.

But we MUST take the time to de-flaw it.  Lives, Human Rights, our beautiful country and our futures are at stake.  Surely we can take a little more time, if that is what it takes now?


Sincerely and respectfully,

Cristina Tabora
Green Initiative