Philex clean-up too little too late

By Bernie Lopez, eastwind journals
Opinyon Magazine advance e-copy

After almost a year, Philex’s track record in cleaning up the Agno River mess is unsatisfactory, yet, it has the gall to ask for resumption of mining operations. As the rainy season looms, it may be too little too late. There are very little media updates on its clean up from Philex.

Right now, Philex is concerned only with the immediate disaster area, a tiny L-shaped zone 2.5 kilometers from Dam No. 3 to the confluence of Balog Creek and Agno River, and 15 kilometers from the confluence to San Roque Dam. Even in this small confined area, Philex has failed to do a major clean up. Philex clean-up is in consultation with NPC and local communities.

Of the spilt 20 million metric tons (mmt) tailings (MGB figure), Philex is focusing clean-up efforts in an even smaller area of high-concentration tailings of 1 mmt at the confluence of Balog and Agno. It has imported six IVAC super-pumps to bring tailings back to the dam. The pumps are due to arrive at the end of February, and may be operational by March. Except for manual and bulldozer interventions to move tailings to nearby upslope areas, Philex has not done much to clean up. Moving tailings to upslope area is futile if floods bring them down again. There is a ‘dead storage area’ in the middle of the Agno River, which is not sufficient to hold all 20 mmt of tailings.

The super-pumps are the first major intervention, an expensive and gargantuan, if not quixotic effort. Philex’s broad estimate is two months to clean up most of the confluence area, which hopefully will be before rainy-season or storm floods. This means 1 mmt cleaned in 60 days, or an average of 17,000 metric tons (mt) per day. Observers say this is overly optimistic. Delays imply looming floods can disrupt clean-up irreversibly. Tailings washed downstream will be harder to manage.

Pumping has two stages – first is near the confluence, and second is at mid-slope to push the tailings back to Dam No. 3. Each stage has 3 parallel pumps, so 6 in all. Whether this will work remains to be seen. If the IVAC scheme fails, it will be regarded by the public as plain propaganda to achieve renewal of operations. If Philex is planning to return tailings back to Dam No. 3, it needs to build a Dam No. 4 to renew operations, that is, if they first are able to do a clean-up satisfactory to residents as a pre-condition.

Considering the massive volume of tailings in question, if Philex has not even started any major clean up after almost a year, and if its first major intervention is to clean up a measly 1 out of 20 mmt, or 5%, starting March, will they be able to really do something substantial at all?

Yet, Philex is already assuming it can resume mine operations soon, confident MGB will approve it, just like it approved the controversial raising of Dam No. 3, which led to the collapse. Will the affected people have a say on these plans, or only government agencies whose agents have been suspected of secretly supporting rather than regulating Philex? Are we seeing here another Philex-MGB-DENR secret partnership? Can reopening of the mine be dependent on substantial clean-up?

THE NON-DISCLOSURE ISSUE

Philex says it has refused to issue statements because the national media distorts information. Philex had banned media, and fact finding missions of the CBCP and CPA from entering the disaster area, in connivance with NPC which has jurisdiction. To dispel suspicions of a news blackout, Philex recently conducted a ‘media tour’ of the disaster area, but only for Baguio-based media, excluding the national media it fears.

In a previous article, this author hinted that ‘Phase 2’ of the disaster would be triggered by heavy rains or a direct-hit typhoon, which would spread the 20 mmt of toxic tailings to the far reaches of the Agno across Pangasinan. Philex argues that this is a ridiculous notion, claiming that the disaster area, is confined to upstream of the San Roque Dam, beyond which there are no tailings, based on its non-independent samplings. Assuming this is true, can 20 mmt of tailings still eventually break San Roque Dam, or render irrigation and power generation useless?

Philex has the moral obligation to lift non-disclosure efforts and give clean-up updates regularly to the public, to forewarn residents of new potential risks if a storm or heavy rains spread the 20 mmt of tailings downstream. This will also be the basis of government pro-active disaster management and international support. With Philex non-disclosure of critical clean up updates, later disasters can be blamed on them. Critical information must not be secret and confined to Philex and the government (NPC, MGB, DENR). The general public and the government disaster agency have the right to know.

Upon request of environmentalist Gina Lopez of the Save Palawan Movement, a hearing was conducted by Neric Acosta of NEDA through the Technical Working Group (TWG), where Philex and CBCP were present. A presentation blamed the disaster not on force majeure, as Philex insists, but on its decision to raise the dam wall by 5 meters, leading to tailings volume beyond the capacity of the dam. The MGB, which approved the Philex decision, was conveniently not present. A second TWG meeting is scheduled to present the findings of a second fact finding mission of a consortium of seven local NGOs.

Philex insists that its tailings are not toxic in spite of reports from two fact finding missions (CBCP and CPA), that there have been cases of skin diseases, and other health issues immediately after the spill. This will be tackled in the next article, which will include Philex’s current ‘sediment transport studies’, and social and toxicity issues.

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