New mining rules — but old mining wastes remain

Last of two parts

BOAC, MARINDUQUE — The 1996 mine tailings accident here still stands as the worst in Philippine history, but Leo Jasareno of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) says there is an upside to this tale.

The chief of the MGB’s Mining Tenements and Management Division, Jasareno says the accident, which saw Boac River choking on some three million tons of mine tailings, somehow defined the new provisions in the then year-old Mining Act. Thus, the law’s implementing rules and regulations (issued in late 1996), included the establishment of a contingent liability and rehabilitation fund for the physical and social rehabilitation of mine affected areas. Too, unlike in the past, each mining stage — from exploration to mine closure — now features work programs for environmental protection.

“Those are the good values from Marcopper, lessons learned from a negative experience,” says Jasareno. “And one of DENR’s (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) approach is that we cannot be successful in convincing non-believers (of mining) unless we address the legacies of the past.”

BOAC River [photo by Karol Ilagan]

An industry that poses considerable environmental and health risks should welcome the new, more stringent rules that can only help its less-than-pristine image. Yet many say only a cleanup of the mess left behind by Marcopper Mining Corporation in Marinduque could convince them that the benefits brought by mining far outweigh its drawbacks.

Here in Marinduque, news that Governor Jose Antonio Carrion may now be open to the idea of resuming mining operations on the island has already upset many residents in the affected towns of Boac, Mogpog, and Sta. Cruz. Asks fisher Wilson Manuba of Sta. Cruz: “Hindi pa ba tayo natuto sa ginawa ng Marcopper (Haven’t we learned from Marcopper yet)?”

Provincial Administrator Lord Allan Jay Velasco, however, says that the governor is considering mining “only if it’s responsible mining.” Provincial Mining Regulatory Board (PMRB) chief Urbano Pilar also explains the governor’s stance by saying that “the dream of a good future, (to) help eliminate poverty in the province will always be there.”

Adds Pilar: “If the Marcopper problem can be fixed — all cases resolved — I see no reason why we won’t give mining a chance as long as it’s operated properly.”

Action plan on three-year ‘standby’

Unfortunately, the problem is far from being “fixed.” In truth, despite several studies that show toxic materials left by Marcopper in three towns, Boac River seems to be the sole focus of most of the cleanup plans that have been suggested. A sub task force that was supposed to study, prioritize, and come up with an action plan based on the 2005 recommendations of a U.S. research team has also been on standby for the last three years, largely because the task force it is under keeps on changing chiefs.

Location map of Boac, Marinduque courtesy of Wikipedia

The undersecretary supposed to head Task Force Marcopper is replaced whenever there is a new DENR secretary. Between 2004 and 2007, the DENR has had six different bosses.

The nongovernmental group Marinduque Council for Environmental Concerns (MACEC) points out as well that before the U.S. team’s recommendations are implemented, these have to be first presented to the people of Marinduque, who, along with local government units, would then decide on which cleanup measures to take. MACEC executive secretary Miguel Magalang says this step remains undone.

Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office (PENRO) chief Danilo Querijero himself says, “The local government unit is still in the stage of coordination. We’re soliciting assistance on how we can work this out.”

That Marinduqueños are losing patience over the sluggish pace of things is not only because many of them have been having health problems that medical experts suspect can be traced to the toxic mine waste around them. It’s also because they have heard that the U.S. researchers who had studied mining’s effects on the province had reported potential instabilities in several of Marcopper’s mine structures. According to the researchers, these “pose significant threat” to Marinduque’s residents and ecosystem.

Experts commissioned by Placer Dome had also noted the high possibility of both Tapian Pit (which leaked in 1996 and filled Boac River with mine tailings) and the Maguila-Guila siltation dam (which burst in 1993 and smothered Mogpog River with silt) breaking down, thus spilling more mine waste into the rivers and villages below.

Hindi man kami makatulog sa gabi pag may ulan, may phobia na kami (We can’t sleep at night whenever it’s raining, we already have phobia),” says Jocelyn Macunat, 53, whose family was among the victims of the 1993 Mogpog River flood, which submerged some 21 barangays.

’Pag bumagyo lalo o lumindol, mapapabilis ang bigay ng tambak niyan (A typhoon especially or an earthquake will only speed up the collapse of that dam), ” she says of the Maguila-Guila Dam. “Doon kami takot, dahil baka maulit na naman yung dati (That’s what we’re scared of, that we’ll have another tragedy).”

MINE tailings from the Boac River. [photo by Karol Ilagan]

MACEC’s Magalang says that one of the dams in question in Boac has a catchment area of 34 million cubic meters. Boac River can hold only about 11 million cubic meters of material. If that dam were to give way, wonders Magalang, “where would the 23 million cubic meters go?”

“It has been reported over and over that these dams pose danger,” he says. “Typhoons have become even stronger now, but still nothing has been done.”

MGB officials, though, say that based on the bureau’s most recent inspection — done just last June 19 — Marcopper’s mining structures generally do not pose immediate danger.

“In general, the dams are competent,” says MGB Regional Director Rolando de Jesus. But he allows, “(The) Maguila-Guila siltation dam needs proper maintenance.”

De Jesus says the MGB has already advised Marcopper to do whatever is necessary to address the negative findings immediately. The PCIJ sought comments from Marcopper, but the company’s officer-in-charge Bert Cuarteron declined PCIJ’s request for an interview, saying there is nothing new to the issue and that MGB has “all the information.”

Submerged tailings still pose risks

A typhoon, earthquake, or even unusually heavy rainfall, however, would not only potentially weaken the mine’s structures further. Indeed, environmental experts say anything that can cause a disturbance in the rivers of Mogpog and Boac, as well as in Calancan Bay in Sta. Cruz, could result in the submerged toxic mining wastes there to resurface and make these waters and surrounding areas unsafe.

CHILDREN In Boac, Mogpog, and Sta. Curz have been found to have elevated levels of arsenic and lead in their blood. [photo by Karol Ilagan]

Magalang quotes the DENR as saying that once the tailings in Boac River are disturbed, oxidation may occur and cause fish kills.

In Mogpog, residents who have to cross the river already complain of chronic skin lesions and the darkening of the skin on their toes. Aside from containing silt from the 1993 dam spill, Mogpog River was also used by Marcopper “as a disposal site for the acidic liquid of the mine tailings,” says environmental scientist Emelina Regis in a 2006 paper on the impact of acid mine drainage on the river and the surrounding community.

Calancan Bay, meanwhile, was the recipient of about 200 million tons of mine tailings dumped there by Marcopper between 1975 and 1991. And here in Boac, data from the Placer Dome Technical Services Ltd. (PDTS) — set up to manage the remediation arrangements after Placer Dome Inc. left — say that there are still some 703,228 cubic meters of mine tailings in the Makulapnit and Boac river system, with about 75 percent of this figure in the dredge channel. The rest are scattered throughout the two rivers.

The environment department’s Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) 2006 report on Boac River says that water samples taken from it generally passed the standards set by the DENR for acceptable levels of parameters (cadmium, dissolved copper, dissolved oxygen, and pH).

“The levels of these parameters either improved or had no significant change throughout the years 2000 to 2006,” says the report. But it noted that the concentration of lead in 2006 increased as compared to 2005 results, with two stations failing the DENR standard.

In the meantime, laboratory analysis of the samples taken in Mogpog River in 2006 indicates that “the copper content of the waters…failed to meet the acceptable limits set by the DENR under Class C (fresh) water,” says the EMB. Comparative analysis of the annual results, though, showed that the level of dissolved copper has been decreasing slowly from 2001 to 2006.

Calancan Bay monitoring suspended

The EMB has continued to monitor both rivers. But since 2005, it has not been getting water samples from Calancan Bay.

Laboratory analysis done by the bureau that year had indicated that the waters of the bay “generally passed the standard set by the DENR for acceptable levels of parameters…(and have) reached and maintained the standard set by the DENR for acceptable limits for Class SB (Coastal and Marine) waters.” This led the EMB to “terminate indefinitely regular water quality monitoring in Calancan Bay to accommodate water quality monitoring in other water bodies within the region.”

Experts like environmental consultant Joel Adriano say that this may not have been a wise move. While Adriano and other experts allow the possibility of contaminated bodies of water to “self-clean,” they argue that it depends on the extent of the pollution.

“If you had polluted it too much, it has its limit, too,” says Dr. Romeo Quijano, a pharmacology and toxicology professor at the University of the Philippines, Manila. “If the source of contamination is still there, then it won’t self-heal.”

It would take a thousand years before the contaminated waterways would “equilibrate,” says Quijano, because heavy metals are highly persistent, especially if it has already been concentrated in the areas.

University of the Philippines National Poison Management and Control Center (UP NPMCC) chief Dr. Lynn Crisanta Panganiban says many of the metals in the mine waste such as arsenic, lead, cadmium, copper, and mercury cannot really be destroyed. She points out, “Iikot lang ‘yan sa iba’t ibang medium — sa tubig, sa hangin, at maaring pumunta sa tao mula sa isdang kinakain (It will just go around in various media — in the water, air, and eventually, to people from the fish they eat).”

So far, though, no one seems to have come up with suggestions on how to rehabilitate Mogpog River or Calancan Bay. But Marcopper, under intense public pressure following the 1996 Tapian Pit collapse, did at one time propose to haul back the tailings from the Boac riverbed to the pit; Placer Dome, for its part, was pushing for submarine tailings disposal, or pumping the tailings into the sea via an underwater pipe. Neither method, however, apparently appealed to local officials.

In Mogpog, Marcopper’s solution to prevent a repeat of the 1993 flood caused by its mine was to place sacks to raise the banks of the river. In Calancan Bay, all that fisher Paciano Rodelas remembers having been done regarding the mine wastes there was that Sta. Cruz townfolk were asked to grow plants on the mine-waste causeway “to prevent (accumulation of) dust.”

No real cleanup possible?

In her 2006 paper, Regis says that as far as acid mine drainage is concerned, “there is still no remediation…under the present technology. All recommendations are still based on experimental procedures and no success stories have been shown under actual field condition in affected mine sites in tropical countries like the Philippines.”

“In addition,” she writes, “experimental remediation (has) not included the impacts on human communities in terms of health and sustainable livelihood not connected with mining activities.”

In 2005, Marinduque’s Sangguniang Panlalawigan declared a 50-year moratorium on large-scale mining in the province. Yet mining companies still show interest in exploring the province’s mining potentials. MGB records show that as of last January, there are already 18 mining tenement applications in Marinduque, with an estimated total area claim of 37,821.83 hectares.

MACEC’s Magalang says Governor Carrion is contemplating opening up the province to mining again because of a possible P1-billion revenue windfall for Marinduque for hosting such activities.

In a 1990 report, the PCIJ had noted that in its then 20 years in the Philippines, Marcopper’s earnings already stood at some $1 billion. It was paying taxes amounting to P409 million annually to the national government, as well as P5 million to the local government. The PCIJ report also said that the company employed 1,000 workers, and bought about P30 million worth of local goods a year. An additional P2 million was set aside annually for social projects.

By the time the Boac mining mishap happened, Marcopper had clocked in almost three decades of operations in Marinduque. Today the province is ranked fourth class, with a poverty incidence of 72 percent.

“Marinduque will always be the tale that you tell other areas to watch out for should you entertain large-scale mining,” says lawyer and Upholding Life and Nature (ULAN) executive director Ronaldo Gutierrez.

He also argues that even in the safest mining operation, bounty-sharing would still be inequitable. “The revenue distribution is skewed,” says Gutierrez. “(The) foreign investor gets the lion’s share, the local government gets a pittance, and the cost — much of it — goes to the community. They (the local folk) bear the damages.”

In a mining venture gone wrong, those damages could be beyond formidable. Regis observes, “(No) amount no amount of money can compensate for the ecosystem destruction brought about by irresponsible mining and what the people will endure for a long, long time.”