Boac Tragedy Aftermath

Marcopper’s first major mine waste victim continues to suffer

Last of three parts

CALANCAN BAY, MARINDUQUE — In its first 20 years in the Philippines, the Marcopper Mining Corp. is estimated to have earned more than $1 billion. During the same period, the company also contributed as much as P18.5 billion to the national government’s coffers.

But it was also during much of this time that Marcopper, under the management of Canadian transnational Placer Dome Inc., was busy establishing a disturbing pattern of mine waste disposal in Marinduque. Specifically, it was dumping mine waste into the shallow and coral rich waters of Calancan Bay, in the town of Sta. Cruz.

Unlike the sudden disastrous tailing spill into the Boac River in 1996, the degradation of Calancan Bay took place over 16 years, between 1975 and 1991. Fourteen kilometers of pipeline brought the tailings down the mountains from the Tapian Mine and into the waters of the bay. This dumping went on 24 hours a day. As the tailings filled up the bottom of the bay, the pipes were extended outward until the mine waste eventually reached a length of some five km and jutted out into the middle of Calancan Bay like a grey landing strip. Today, some 80 sq. km. of corals and seagrasses on the bottom of the bay are smothered in tailings of some 200 million tons.

In Boac, where more than three million tons of tailings killed the river there and then flowed out to the sea, Placer Dome has accepted that corals were covered by mine waste and that turbulence has driven away fish. It is now proceeding to compensate the affected fisherfolk there. Here in Calancan Bay, however, the company continues to deny that the 200 million tons of mine sludge that it dumped into the bay caused residents to lose their livelihood—and most probably exposed them to serious health risks.

In 1997, separate studies by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), the University of the Philippines at Los Baños, and a joint medical team from the University of the Philippines and the Department of Health all indicated that the tailings in the bay have been slowly poisoning the food source of the people here as well as the villagers themselves. By March last year, then President Fidel Ramos was compelled enough to declare a number of Calancan Bay villages to be in a “state of calamity for health reasons.”

Yet for all the company’s claims to have reformed itself into a model corporate citizen that advocates “sustainable” mining, Placer Dome’s attitude toward Calancan Bay is testimony to its intransigence when it comes to facing up to its responsibilities and putting its own new policies into action. At the same time, the continuing struggle of the people here is illustrative of just how the government has been unable to protect citizens and the environment from companies that constantly outsmart authorities and persist in doing questionable actions.

Placer Dome never sought nor received the consent of Calancan Bay villagers to use the bay as a dumpsite and in fact went ahead over vigorous protest. Placer Dome has steadfastly denied damage to the bay or to fishing and so has never paid the villagers compensation for their losses. But in 1988, then President Corazon Aquino ordered Marcopper to make daily “payments” of P30,000 for the rehabilitation of the bay. Marcopper complied, but arbitrarily stopped the payments in July 1991, when it closed down the tapped out Tapian Mine.

Before the tailings started pumping into the bay, most of 15,000 people spread in some 12 villages around the bay were able to make a living quite easily by simply paddling out into the shallow protected bay and fishing for a couple of hours. Motorized bancas were rare and unnecessary. Fishing provided both family food and a product to sell in the market for income. Increasing habitat destruction related to the dumped tailings, however, made fishing more difficult over time; turbulence caused by day and night dumping through the surface of the water also drove away many species.

When village leaders first learned of the plan to dump mine waste into Calancan Bay in 1974, they banded together and sent the first of what was to become a non-stop flow of letters and pleas for help to all levels of government. The next year, however, tailings began flowing into the bay.

Only twice in the 16 years that Calancan Bay served as a free disposal dump for the mine did it seem to the villagers that they had been heard.

In 1981, a review of the situation by the then National Pollution Control Commission (NPCC) led to an order that the mine “cease and desist” dumping into the bay. But rejoicing by Calancan Bay villagers was cut short when then President Ferdinand Marcos overruled the cease-and-desist order and allowed the mine to continue operating “without restraints.” He did this in direct response to an appeal made by the mine’s president, Placer Dome’s Garth Jones, who dismissed reports regarding the destruction of coral and fish loss as “slanderous.” Only when Marcos was deposed in 1986 did the villagers learn that Placer Dome’s partner in the mine had been the Marcos family, which owned 50 percent of Marcopper shares through four front companies.

The ouster of Marcos and the coming into power of the popular Aquino began a second period of hope for the villagers, who soon renewed their renewed letter writing campaign. Success seemed to be at hand when, in November 1986, the NPCC issued Marcopper a three-month temporary permit to operate, on condition that the mine transfer its tailings disposal system back to its earlier tailings pond on land within two months time.

But Marcopper quickly appealed this ruling. When it seemed that Placer Dome and Marcopper would only respond to a stronger message, the villagers launched a class action lawsuit with the pro bono legal assistance of then Senator Lorenzo Tañada and Domingo Abadilla. But before the case could be decided, Fulgencio Factoran Jr., then chair of the Pollution Adjudication Board (PAB), noted that Marcopper had been operating without a valid permit since February 10, 1987, and on April 11, 1988 issued an order to Marcopper to immediately cease and desist dumping mine tailings into Calancan Bay.

Marcopper management responded eight days later by shutting down without prior warning and thereby shutting off the electricity the mine had produced and sold locally to Marinduque. This led to massive protest rallies on the island. The parish priest of the municipality where the fishermen lived received death threats because of his support of the fishermen and fled his parish for a month. Two of the fishermen in the court case also received death threats and temporarily fled the island. Eventually, the mine’s president, Placer Dome’s John Dodge, appealed directly to President Aquino to overrule the cease-and-desist order “from above.”

The company also threatened to take legal action against the PAB ruling. To the great dismay of the fisherfolk here, Aquino apparently took the advice of people who feared that the government would not win a court battle with Marcopper’s legal team; the President granted the company the right to continue dumping into the bay. In the midst of these traumatic events, Dodge declared that the fishermen of Calancan Bay “…have not suffered in any way because of the tailings disposal system….”

When confronted with this history, Placer Dome officials typically respond with some variation on the theme of “that was then and this is now.” In April 1997, company spokesperson Hugh Leggatt said, “The decision was also made in the context of that era.…the fact that the acceptability of such practices have changed cannot be denied….”

This would seem to imply that Placer Dome now recognizes that the dumping into Calancan Bay caused serious damage and that the company has a responsibility to clean up the bay and compensate the people who lost their livelihood. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, statements from Placer Dome officials to this day show remarkable similarity to the denials of damage made by Marcopper presidents Garth Jones and John Dodge in the 1980s.

In 1989, Placer Dome Corporate Vice President John Hick said, “Marcopper does not believe it has polluted Calancan Bay in a legal sense.” In 1997, spokesperson Leggatt wrote in a letter to supporters of Calancan Bay villagers, “Placer Dome rejects allegations that it is also responsible for alleged damage to fishing in Calancan Bay.” At the company’s annual general meeting last year, Placer Dome CEO John Willson responded to a question about Calancan Bay at the annual general meeting by saying, “Placer does not concede there is damage in the bay.”

In truth, not only do such statements sound nothing like a company willing to face its responsibilities, they also ignore the findings of numerous environmental impact studies commissioned by the Placer Dome management of Marcopper in the 1980s. Reports submitted by the Rescan Environmental Services Ltd. and the Synergistics Consultants Inc. well document the deterioration of the bay from 1975. The Rescan studies, one done in 1981, and the second in 1989, called for a submerged tailings disposal system that would place the tailings further out to sea. This was to minimize the negative affects on corals and seagrasses as well as to cut down on turbulence.

The very first permit granted Marcopper to dump waste into Calancan Bay, in 1975, was in fact only for a submerged disposal system. The authorities specifically requested that the disposal system be submerged as this would necessarily place the tailings in deep water and protect corals and seagrasses in the bay. Yet the dumping was done via surface disposal close to shore. Placer Dome was able to ignore the dictates of its permit because the Marcos family was a partner in the project. Two cease-and-desist orders were also overturned through presidential intervention.

Placer Dome also maintains that the dumping was done according to “best practice” of the time. This argument was reiterated by CEO Willson at the company’s annual meeting last year, again in response to questions concerning Calancan Bay. Willson said the company “followed the best waste disposal practices at the time.”

In fact, it was well known by 1975, that surface disposal into shallow waters was a destructive way of disposing of mine waste. It was for that very reason that the Philippine environmental authorities had insisted on submerged disposal for the Calancan Bay tailings. While submerged disposal has since also been shown to be destructive and has been banned in Canada, surface disposal does far worse damage. Rescan was also to advise Marcopper later to implement a submerged system in Calancan Bay to minimize further environmental and social impacts, but this was not heeded.

Throughout the time the dumping was going on, environmental impact assessments, recognizing the potential for metal leaching from the tailings, called for metal testing of biota, soil and water in the bay. In discussions with concerned groups in Canada, Placer Dome officials have, to this day, denied the possibility of metal leaching from the tailings in Calancan Bay.

In March 1997, however, a joint team of medical professionals from the Department of Health and the University of the Philippines (DOH-UP) conducted limited health studies among 108 Calancan Bay villagers and established unacceptable lead and mercury levels in seven of the 22 children tested (two adults also had lead contamination). Then Health Secretary Carmencita Reodica commented, “In the long run, if we continue to monitor, we will find more and more cases.” She also warned Calancan Bay villagers “to exercise extreme caution” in eating oysters and fish from the bay.

In October of that year, an expanded follow-up study was conducted by the DOH-UP team wherein not only blood samples were taken but also air samples and soil samples were collected 7 km. out from the causeway and in the causeway itself. In this study, all of the 59 children tested proved to have unacceptable levels of lead in their blood, while 25 percent of these children had unacceptable blood cyanide levels. Soil samples showed unacceptable levels of lead, cadmium and elevated levels of copper and zinc and air samples showed lead values exceeding US Environmental Protection Agency standards.

According to health experts, lead and cyanide both attack the central nervous system and poison blood, thereby leading to shakiness, lack of balance and anemia. Lead poisoning especially leads to reduced mental functioning and memory loss; in children, it can result in retarded mental development.

Based on the DOH-UP team’s findings, seven government agencies petitioned the Office of the President to declare a state of calamity for health reasons in Calancan Bay, which President Ramos did in March 1998.

Further arguments against Placer Dome’s denials of metal leachings here are provided by a report by a team of researchers from the University of the Philippines at Los Baños that gives definitive statements about the socio-economic damage done by the tailings in Calancan Bay, as well an extensive discussion of the heavy metal contamination of soil, water and biota. This report is of great significance because it is based on numerous studies conducted over consecutive years in the 1990s by researchers for the Calancan Bay Rehabilitation Program (CBRP), a program ordered by President Aquino in 1988.

To the credit of the people here, they have not given up on their fight despite the many setbacks that they have encountered. Ten years after they launched their first class action lawsuit, they filed another case lawsuit against Marcopper and Placer Dome. Today, 24 years after they first began to fight for their very survival, the people of Calancan Bay have organized themselves again in the Calancan Bay Fisherfolks Federation.

Last week, Marinduque Congressman Edmundo O. Reyes rose at the Batasan to present a privilege speech to his peers. For Marinduqueños in Boac, Mogpog and Calancan Bay, the speech from their freshman representative was a sign that the island’s highest elected official was aligning himself with the struggle of his people for justice. While former Mayor Wilfredo Red of Santa Cruz and Mayor Roberto Madla of Boac and Provincial Boardmember Adeline Angeles of Mogpog had also taken a stance for the people against destructive mining, Marinduqueños have not always been so well protected by their politicians.

Reyes’s speech, however, represents more than just hope for Marinduqueños. The speech points the way forward, to employment and environmental protection based on forcing the industry to employ state of the art technology for dealing with mine waste. It is this kind of thinking that will need to become widespread very quickly in the Philippines, if only to prevent other areas in the country from a future as bleak as the one faced by Marinduqueños today.

“The key,” said Reyes in his speech, “lies in exerting constant pressure from our highest office, and, consistent and critical coverage in the international and local media, where Placer Dome least wants to be. With the help of our highest officials, international and local media and concerned citizens, Marinduque will be able to host the first state-of-the art waste treatment facility that will be the showcase for future disposal facilities. This would also serve as a constant reminder of the painful lessons learned from greed and neglect. It would also remind us that with the dedication of our leaders, there can be alternative opportunities for employment that are on the other end of exploration and extraction.”