Philex’s 20 MT mine waste spill, ‘An act of God, or Greed?’

Aside from the fact that Philex is not taking responsibility for what appears as its negligence at readying a replacement for the expired TP3, the company has also been claiming that the contents released by its mine tailings dam are harmless “sediments.”


MANILA – After blocking at their main gate the entry of groups independently investigating the tailings pond leak of Philex Mining Corporation at Itogon, Benguet, Philex disclosed to the media and confirmed to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) its hopes of continuing mining operations in Padcal “sooner than later.” Sooner means before end of 2012.

Philex’s operations of its biggest gold mine was suspended last Aug 1 following what the company and the Mines and Geosciences Board (MGB) described as just a leakage that can be plugged in no time. The lifting of the suspension depends on Philex’s ability to convince the government and the public that they had plugged the leak.

Before suspending its mining operations, Philex had forecasted profits for this year of P4 billion ($95.76 million). They had also announced plans to continue mining the site till 2020.

This sinkhole in Philex’s tailings pond is partly the source of spillage of an estimated 20MT of mine wastes into the Balog river. Even the mining company’s bulldozer, 2 load-haul-dump equipment (LHD), and large industrial container boxes reportedly fell from here to the river, Sept 2012. (

But from Aug 1 to the present, Philex’s ageing and only operational tailings pond has had more leaks than the company’s workers, hired experts and consultants could plug. The Katribu indigenous peoples’ partylist group, the Cordillera Peoples’ Alliance and Amianan Salakniban reported early last month that far from just a simple leak, part of the tailings pond’s crest had in fact collapsed.

By late September, nearly two months after the reported leak, the government estimated that more than 20 million tons of Philex mine waste had been spilled into the river system. It is more than 10 times greater than the mine wastes released by Marcopper Mines in Boac Marinduque in 1996, said Joan Jaime, national coordinator of Kalipunan ng mga Katutubong Mamamayan ng Pilipinas (KAMP).

The Marcopper mine tailings spill in Marinduque in 1996 resulted in floods, destruction of crops and vegetable gardens, and a fish kill. It left the Boac River practically dead.

The unstable Philex tailings dam, DENR data showed, should have been decommissioned as early as 2010. But instead of decommissioning it and constructing a new dam, Philex is saying the mine spill was a “force majeure.” It is also contesting “the imposition of fines and adverse findings” related to the spill, even as it still continues to present itself as a “responsible mining company.”

Lies, half-truths from the Aquino government’s “responsible, model mining company”

Since day 1 (last Aug 1) of the latest reported leak from the Philex tailings pond in the north, Philex has actively projected an appearance of taking responsibility.

Philex boasted that they shut down operations a day ahead of the government suspension. It also promised it will only continue mining operations at Padcal after assuring the “safety and integrity” of tailings pond 3, Padcal’s sole operational mine tailings pond at the site.

But contrary to Philex’s projection, it is not telling the public that instead of repair and remediation, it should have been decommissioning the Tailings Pond 3 as early as 2010 or at the latest, this June of 2012. The said tailings pond has reached the end of its 18 to 20 years’ lifespan this year, based on DENR data on the dam. An earlier waste spill from the same dam occurred in December 2009, and it should have been warning enough, the Katribu Partylist said in a statement.

The extended use of the TP 3 “manifests the sheer neglect and gross irresponsibility of the Philex Mining Corporation,” Katribu said.

Only after TP3 showed cracks and holes and eventually spilled tons of its contents downriver since August did Philex decide to construct another tailings pond, as it confirmed to the SEC last Sept 24. Construction will “be put underway as soon as possible,” it said. Meanwhile, it is hoping to plug the sinkholes in the TP3 crest so it could resume mining operations, even if it has yet to “put underway” construction of a new tailings dam.

Philex is the “most responsible, model mining company,” MGB director Leo Jasareno said last week at an interview on an AM radio station. Jasareno assured the listeners that Philex had plugged the leak “since last month (August).”

But Jasareno failed to mention how, after the Aug 1 reported leak was plugged on Aug 9 with big boulders of rocks, other leaks occurred by Aug 11. Philex workers said the leak was “on and off,” and that by Sept 13, the fifth leak was reported.

Initial report on the first leak alone said a rough estimate of 12 operational months’ volume of mine wastes (9.9 million tons) were released covering 2.5-km long, 15-ft. wide and 2 to 8 feet thick of Itogon’s Balog River, leaving a deep crater on the dam’s surface.

Amid the panic of mineworkers when another leak occurred on Aug 11, two functional load-haul-dump (LHD) equipment, one functional bulldozer and several large industrial container boxes reportedly went through the hole and were found in the Balog River.

9-meter sphere being ‘thrown’ into the hole in Philex’s tailings pond, Sept 2012 (

As a last-ditch attempt to plug the dam’s seepage, huge concrete spheres 9 meters in diameter were being thrown down at the crater (or hole where the dam crest had collapsed).

Aside from the fact that Philex is not taking responsibility for what appears as its negligence at readying a replacement for the expired TP3, the company has also been claiming that the contents released by its mine tailings dam are harmless “sediments.”

But without an independent, thorough probe, Philex and even DENR ‘studies’ hardly sound credible to peoples’ organizations who said they have been lied to before by these two.

Unleashed dangers to river system, environment and communities

Aside from chemicals such as hydrochloric acid, nitric acids and others, Philex reportedly uses the flotation technology in its milling plant. This technology in turn uses Sodiumiso-butyl xanthate (SIBX) and frother as concentrator plant reagents (chemicals) with dosages of 30-35 grams per ton and 10-15 grams per ton respectively. As Philex used to process 25,000 to 27,500 metric tons of ore per day, that could give us an idea of how much contamination the leaked tailings have.

US regulations categorize frothers as cause of both immediate and delayed health hazards. These chemicals cause eye or skin irritants according to Canadian regulations, and are “hazardous chemicals,” according to the Occupational Hazard and Safety Administration. Xanthate, meanwhile, is said to be a severe corrosive. It causes corrosion in the mouth, throat and stomach aside from burning the skin. It may have adverse effects on the kidney and might prove fatal.

“These are the potential dangers to both the environment and the downstream communities. But there is no mechanism within the mines or the government to arrest these problems,” various groups said.

After more than a month of monitoring the mine tailings spill, the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) still has not come up with assessment and measures to address these problems. “All they have accomplished so far is a computation of millions in penalty fee to be imposed on Philex Mines,” critics said.

In a media briefing last week, geologist Ric Saturay Jr. of AGHAM said that contrary to Philex’s description, the materials discharged from TP3 resulting from the dam failure are not just “sediments” but mine tailings.

Saturay explained that as per MGB report, the 20 million MT mine tailings released since August roughly translates to 400,000 metric tons per day, assuming 50 days since the first leak in August 1. “Philex tailings spill is 47 times the garbage generated in Metro Manila (at 8,500 metric tons per day) and 12.5 times larger than the Marcopper tragedy in 1993 in Marinduque.

The MGB itself disclosed that the Marcopper tailings spill is 1.6 million metric tons. Saturay said that the 20 million metric tons mine tailings is 14 times the average milling rate of Philex (at 27, 500 metric tons/day), which would translate to 16, 667 MT/hour, or, imagine 1,667 dump truck loads (at 10 MT each) of mine tailings every hour. Saturay further explained that 20 million metric tons is equivalent to 20 billion kilograms, and, if one were to dump all these in one hectare of land or open space, the mine tailings would be 800 meters high.

The enormous amount of mine waste dumped into the river system has incalculable effects on the environment and the people, KAMP said in a statement. Balog River flows into Agno River, about 290 kilometers from Mount Data in Benguet and Mountain Province down to the river delta in Lingayen, Pangasinan. One of its branches flows to Tarlac province.

According to Itogon Mayor Oscar Camantiles, the tailings leaks has affected the livelihood of more than 34 families living downstream of the Agno river in sitios Pangbasan, Pao and Daynet. Through interviews with Mayor Camantiles and some of the affected families, a fact finding mission composed of various groups such as NASSA-CBCP and Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA), learned that the residents of the said villages could no longer catch fish from the Agno River and the San Roque Dam since the fishes have “left” their fishing grounds due to murky waters. They also confirmed earlier reports of trees and plants destroyed by the surge of tailings from TP3.

As early as day 3 of Philex minespill, a NAPOCOR hydrologist observed the discoloration of water coming out of the turbines of San Roque Dam when his team inspected the dam. “It was like muck (burak), a dirty grayish material that did not seem to mix well with water,” Santos Mero of CPA quoted the hydrologist as saying.

Citing results of commissioned studies, Philex said no chemicals could have grossly affected the waters near the mines to jeopardize the lives and livelihood of families living in the area. “The company will submit its written reply to the EMB contesting its notice of adverse findings and explaining why the company should not be penalized or fined under the terms and conditions of the ECC,” the company said late last September.

The Environment Management Bureau – an agency of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources – has fined Philex for the waste material its Padcal Mines in Benguet had released to the ecosystem.

But more than just fines, various groups demand a comprehensive rehabilitation plan for the Balog and Agno Rivers as well as for the surrounding environs.

Virgilio Aniceto, an engineer speaking for Katribu Partylist in Northern Luzon, said that “A mere cleanup is not enough to address such a catastrophe.” We cannot take the words of an arrogant liar,” he said, referring to Philex.

In a media briefing Sept 28, the Cordillera Peoples Alliance and Amianan Salakniban called for the immediate decommissioning of Philex’s Tailings Pond 3, and for the “urgent” rehabilitation and just compensation for the affected communities like Itogon, Tuba, and communities downstream of the Agno River, such as Pangasinan, which hosts the San Roque Dam.

“These are our urgent demands. We are also challenging Philex to cooperate, be transparent and immediately open its mining compound and allow concerned organizations like CPA, including the media, to conduct an independent fact-finding and environmental investigation. (

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