Boac Tragedy Aftermath

Marinduque’s other toxic river

Second of three parts

MOGPOG, MARINDUQUE — The San Antonio Mine run by the Marcopper Mining Corp. has been closed for three years now, but residents of Boac are not the only ones with a dead river to remind them of the damage the company’s managers have inflicted on them. Here in Mogpog, a coastal town that is about a 20-minute drive from Boac, the major river is also so heavily polluted with mine waste that its precarious condition is visible even to the most casual observer.

Mogpog River is a strangely luminescent creamy blue, and everywhere along the river are mounds of very fine and oddly orange colored silt. For residents here, these are enough to be wary of their much-loved river, where fishkills have become a regularity since the early 1990s. Mogpog villagers also fear that their precious Bagtuk crabs that used to be abundant in the river have already become extinct. To make matters worse, the silt has raised the riverbed to such an extent that there is a constant threat of flooding.

The mine waste that is flowing freely into the Mogpog River stems from the notoriously inadequate Maguila-guila dam at the river’s headwaters. The people of Mogpog had vehemently opposed the construction of this dam in 1990. In numerous petitions and resolutions they voiced their concern that the dam would not protect them from waste and would increase the risk of flooding. But Marcopper went ahead with its plans for the dam, anyway, and began constructing it in 1991.

The dam’s performance has since proven the people right as it has repeatedly and spectacularly failed to protect the river and Mogpog residents from the toxic waste it is meant to contain. In 1993, it even burst altogether, causing a deadly flood. Former Kagawad Godofredo Manoy says the people are so terrorized by this “sword of Damocles” hanging over their heads that one woman cries loudly whenever there is strong rain.

An elderly resident of Barangay Bocboc, which is most immediately in danger of being buried under a toxic wall of silt should the dam burst again, also observes: “The fish, shrimps and crabs we used to rely on for our food are scarce now in the river, and sometimes disappear altogether. Some mornings we wake up and the fish are floating dead in the river. We are afraid to let our animals drink (from the river) because pigs have died after drinking (its) water.”

The condition of the river is so obviously unhealthy that Marcopper engineers do not even try to deny the problem. When asked whether it is true that mine waste is flowing into the river through the dam, company engineers Rick Esquierres and Jesus Cruz agreed that, regrettably, it is. They also confirmed that the waste increases the threat of flooding and is toxic to the river’s animal life and people. Added Esquierres: “The dam needs to be raised but the people of Mogpog are opposing any further expansion of the dam and the waste dump behind it.”

Last November, in fact, Mogpog’s town council put forth a resolution to the provincial board demanding the complete removal of the dam, the clean-up of the waste dump at the top of the river and the complete rehabilitation of the river and watershed. Provincial boardmember Adeline Angeles, who is from this town, wondered aloud, though: “But who should the people of Mogpog turn to carry out our demand? Placer Dome refuses to acknowledge any responsibility for the problems of Mogpog and Marcopper is bankrupt.”

It was the Placer Dome management of Marcopper, however, who had decided to make the Maguila-guila Creek, a headwater of the Mogpog River, as a dump site for the debris that would be generated by its new San Antonio Mine in the early 1990s, as well as to place a dam in the upper river.

According to a 1989 report by the Rescan Environmental Services Ltd., which had been brought in from Placer Dome’s hometown of Vancouver, Canada to do an Environmental Impact Assessment for the San Antonio project, an earthen dam was to contain the waste materials from the mine, as well as drainage from the San Antonio Pit that would be directed there through a tunnel.

As soon as Mogpog residents learned of these plans, they began to protest vigorously. In July 1990, 130 residents of Barangay Bocboc, located just below the proposed dam site, signed a petition, addressed to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), that expressed their fears that siltation and waste from the mine would likely end up “thru the entire (Mogpog) river … the pollution it will cause will endanger lives, safety and the source of water of those living in the lowlands.”

In addition, the villagers noted that an earth-filled dam would be inadequate to contain the mine waste and would be unable to protect the “lives, security, and properties of the residents in Barangay Bocboc and other residents in Mogpog.” This petition asked the DENR not to grant permits for the waste pond and dam.

The Marinduque Council for Environmental Concerns (MACEC), a people’s organization led by the Social Action Commission of the local Catholic Church, also appealed to then President Corazon Aquino, through Senator Aquilino Pimentel, not to allow a waste rock siltation pond to be located behind an earthen dam at the top of the Mogpog river. This petition had 499 signatories including barangay captains from most of the villages along the river.

These efforts were made in spite of the fact that the villagers did not know at the time that the waste the dam was to contain happened to be highly susceptible to acidification and metal leaching. For all their protests, however, the creek was diverted and the waste pond and dam—apparently without a spillway—were built.

Engineer Buenaventura M. Logdat, who has since left the Philippines in frustration, reflects back on this time when he was Vice Mayor of Mogpog: “I vehemently opposed the utilization of Maguila-guila Area as a dumping for mine waste. I repeatedly pointed out during several meetings conducted that the dumping will bring irreversible damage to the pristine condition of the Mogpog River. The argument I presented was disregarded and was pitted (against) the studies and presentation by the so-called experts and consultants of Marcopper. We are now suffering in the forms of flood, siltation and pollution. Who knows that for the suffering of the many, a few may have benefited financially for that decision.”

The dam was completed in 1992. In the years that followed, villagers noted that the dam was allowing effluent from the waste dump to seep into the river. Sudden fish kills and foul smells, especially after rainstorms, were being reported regularly. Siltation from the waste dump started building up in the Mogpog River increasing the severity of flooding in the rainy season. Then on December 6, 1993 the dam burst.

The ensuing disaster was enormous in scope but received almost no public attention. As toxic silt and water raged down the river and into the town, it swept away homes, people and livestock in its wake. Two people were swept to their deaths, rice fields were covered in mud, dead and dying animals lay strewn around the river.

In Mogpog town, the muddy water rose up to the second floor of many houses, leading to panic, as well as damage to property. Provincial Boardmember Angeles remembers that when the neighboring town of Boac held its fiesta two days later, the smell of carcasses rotting in Mogpog wafted over the hills and fields between the towns to put a damper on the festivities.

As it would do in Boac a few years later, the Placer Dome management of the mine refused to take responsibility for the disaster, turning to “nature,” or an “act of God” as the cause. Resident Manager Steve Reid cited “unusual rainfall due to a typhoon” as the culprit. He explained that the water coming down the valley carried debris with it which “clogged the concrete decant of the dam causing water to overtop the dam which gradually eroded section of the embankment.”

Not having admitted any responsibility, Placer Dome decided it did not have to pay out any compensation to the people who were still in shock and trying to deal with their losses. But in the wake of a local public outcry, Marcopper finally coursed a “grant” of P3 million through Mayor Ruben Tan, although it was careful to label the amount as “community assistance,” not compensation. Tan was left to figure out for himself which families were worthy of the money and those who were deemed to received a maximum of P1,000 each.

The funds were wholly inadequate to repair the immense damages caused by the flood and Mogpog residents feel that no meaningful recognition of fault or compensation has ever been made in the wake of what they went through. Indeed, since 1993, the people of Mogpog have not ceased from sending a steady flow of people’s petitions, town council resolutions and letters to national government officials, all of them demanding recognition of the damages wrought by the bursting of the dam, as well as compensation.

To be sure, though, Marcopper personnel re-engineered the dam following the disaster—at least a tacit recognition of the structure’s previous inadequacies. An overflow was added, supposedly aimed at dealing with “abnormally” high incidents of rainfall. But this overflow is simply a channel dug through the top of the dam that is meant to allow water to escape when the water level behind the dam is elevated. In the case of the Maguila-guila dam, the waste behind the dam is now piled higher than the bottom of the overflow so that the overflow channel now serves to funnel waste directly into the river.

In 1995, residents of Bocboc again reported their fear that the dam would burst because of increasing structural damage. A petition was signed by 21 barangay captains of Mogpog and supported by the Social Action Commission of the Church to have the entire waste pond and dam removed. In November that year, the town council passed another resolution stating that the “siltation dam barely serves its purpose. Marcopper with their beautiful rhetorics would always find ways to defend their position but just try to visit the Mogpog river and see the reality yourself. The fact and truth is there are portions of the river which are even higher than the barangay roads which used to be meters higher than the river base.”

The fishkills also continued. The November resolution discussed “poisoning of the river causing death and destruction of different living creatures specially fishes and shrimps.” The resolution commiserates with the people who rely on the river’s bounty as “a major source of food and income.”

Company officials by then admitted that there was some erosion on the dam and that there was possible leaching of materials from the waste rock siltation pond. But Marcopper insisted it was not at fault, blaming “typhoon activities” this time. Still, while denying responsibility or the need for compensation, Marcopper Resident Manager Reid finally agreed to carry out further “repairs” to the dam. This work, however, was overtaken by the Boac River tailing spill in 1996 and the mine’s closure. The repairs have never been completed.

Today, a visit to the dam itself reveals that the odd color in pooled areas of the river becomes more notable and the mounds of fine orange silt deeper as one nears the structure. A look at the waste piled behind the dam also confirms that it is the exact same material that is in the river. Obviously, the dam is not holding back much of anything.

Meanwhile, in addition to grave concerns about habitat destruction and loss of livelihood, the people of Mogpog are now also fearful for their health—and rightfully so. In both Boac and Calancan Bay, where mine waste is also loose in the environment, medical testing that has barely scratched the surface has already shown that people are suffering from heavy metal contamination. It looks like the people of Mogpog have only started to pay the very high price for the profits reaped by Marcopper and Placer Dome.