by Bernie Lopez
This article is based on a low-profile field trip of an independent team to the Philex mine site, conducted prior to a higher-profile fact finding mission. This is on the occasion of Manny Pangilinan renouncing his alma mater, Ateneo de Manila University, in defense of his mining companies. Ateneo issued a statement against the dangers of large scale mining. This means his funds for the Ateneo sports programs will stop to flow. Pangilinan is one of the biggest donors of Ateneo, and was chairman of the board for a long time.
The newspapers said it was a ‘leak’. But in reality, according to local residents, Philex attempted to plug the ‘leak’ with an old truck. The truck went through the ‘leak’ hole and ended up somewhere else outside the lake. That was how ‘small’ the leak was. The newspaper leak was even smaller. Such band-aid news blackouts from powerful forces never work. Eventually, truth prevails from local residents.
Ocular inspection revealed that the tailings dam lake has shrunk by about half, perhaps even more. The dam collapse is not dramatic because it is invisible, occurring at the bottom of the dam and flowing dangerously into the aquifer or underground rivers, which will be beyond rehabilitation. Plugging the leak may be impossible at this point. At this rate, if the ‘leak’ is not plugged, the entire tailings dam may flow out and vanish completely. Half of the dam leaked out rapidly in a matter of weeks.
If it is true that the tailings dam has a capacity of 10.1 million metric tons (MMT), about ten times of the Marcopper disaster of 1.2 MMT, and half of it has ‘leaked’, we are talking of about 5 MMT out there ready to kill fish, rivers, and humans. This is 5 times the volume of the Marcopper disaster, which has killed the Boac River in Marinduque permanently. As of now, in spite of $2 million in rehabilitation funds, theBoac River is still dead. We would be talking here of a massive permanent disaster for most of Pangasinan, Luzon’s prime rice granary, perhaps unprecedented in Philippine history.
The tailings ended up in San Roque dam which has two outlets, first, to irrigate hundreds of hectares of farmlands in Pangasinan, second, to power the turbines that produce electricity for the Luzon grid, before it flows to the Agno River, the largest in Pangasinan, and one of the largest in Northern Luzon. The dam people decided to let the toxic tailings flow to the turbines to safeguard the farmlands. But such thick mud may not only destroy the turbines, but fish, people. and farmlands across the entire length of Agno, all the way to the China Sea. This may easily constitute a third of the entire Pangasinan province in terms of damage. Philex claimed the leaked tailings are not toxic (all mine tailings ARE toxic) because they examined fish in nearby rivers to be negative in heavy metals. They did not check the fish in deeper waters. We need an independent investigation. Even if non-toxic, the volume of silt is so massive, the impact is uminaginable.
The billion pesos the DENR-MGB estimates that Philex should pay is the tip of the iceberg. It is not enough for such massive damage. Pangilinan has to draw money from the other pillars of his empire, such as Smart, PLDT, Meralco, ABC5, NLEX, Business World, to name a few. If he does not, the government can legally close down or takeover his businesses. His empire may have a massive leak like never before. He may be forced to stop his gas exploration in the Spratley’s in partnership with China. That is, if he fails to use his powerful influence on the government not to charge him too much.
According to local residents, Pangilinan said Philex cannot be charged because it was a force-majeure, namely Nature’s intervention. On the contrary, it was Man’s intervention. About six months ago, this author predicted and warned of a Philex dam collapse, because it was full and they still did not build a new one. Even while the dam, the last in the series of dams in two decades of extraction, was full to capacity, they failed to stop operations and kept dumping tailings into it. Digos Bishop Afable says the ‘precautionary principle’ applies, meaning, do not wait for a disaster before you act.
This sets back the entire mining industry for the next two decades. The Philex disaster will affect government mining policies in the short and medium terms. Emboldened by EO79, Xstrata-SMI sent a plea to Malacanang to approve their denied ECC for their proposed gold-copper mine in Tampakan, South Cotabato, largest in Asia. This was even before the Philex disaster. Tampakan will have a staggering 1.35 billion metric tons of tailings, about 135 times that of Philex, sitting permanently atop the mountain near the headwaters of 6 rivers of 4 provinces in Central Mindanao underneath a fault line.
When Xstrata-SMI did not get an answer, and Malacanang issued a statement that all existing mines had to be reviewed by EO79’s Mining Industry Coordinating Committee (MICC), the Chamber of Mines threatened to sue President Aquino, thinking the Supreme Court would be their ally. The Supreme Court reversed an earlier decision proclaiming SMI’s contract was unconstitutional. The mining firms looked up to EO79 as the solution, but it is now becoming the problem. To ‘attack’ the President is considered by observers as a strategic blunder. Was that threat just to scare Aquino, or are they serious?
The slogan of Philex and other large scale mining firms, has always been ‘responsible mining’. Now, everyone knows this is just empty rhetoric. This lends credence to the other slogan of environmentalists, ‘there is no such thing as responsible mining’. International expert Robert Goodland published a paper on responsible mining, setting up the criteria for such, and later reported that Xstrata-SMI failed miserably on the criteria on many counts. (Read the extensive works of Goodland and his partner Clive Wicks of the Working Group in Mining in the Philippines, at these sources –
Philippines: Mining or Food? Abbreviated version
This article is being emailed to President Aquino, key Cabinet members (Ochoa, Paje, Abad), NICA, MGB, NCIP, CHR, CBCP-NASSA, AMRSP, MVP-Philex, Xstrata-SMI, the British Embassy and Parliament, CCCP, selected media outlets and green organizations, and 7,000 minewatchers here and abroad.
Photo via Inquirer.net