Untold story of Philex’s mine waste spill

The Ampucao village captain, Eddie Amuasen, told the FFM that the mining spill has negatively affected the people’s livelihood. They mainly depend on fishing and gold panning in the river, he said. But fishermen stopped fishing since August 2, 2012 due to the heavy contamination of the Balog river. “They also cannot fish in farther areas because it is already beyond their fishing boundary.”

Nestor D. Domenden, regional director of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) based in San Fernando, La Union, told the FFM that “in the event of a long term effect of the tailings in the San Roque dam, the fisherfolk who depend on fishing here should organize themselves, indicate how much they are earning from there as basis to file a suit/ case against Philex.”

The FFM found that there are around 45 families living near the mouth of the juncture of Balog and Agno River. An Indigenous Peoples (IP) community live here, in Sitio Pangbasan, part of Barangay Dalupirip in the town of Itogon, Benguet.

Balog river polluted by minewastes, Itogon, Benguet, Aug 11, 2012 (Contributed photo / bulatlat.com)

Because the people were “typically shy,” the interview with them during the FFM was reportedly conducted through their leader, Alipio Lictag, who also heads the Pangbasan Goldpanners and Fisherfolk Livelihood Association. Speaking as community representative, the members of the community were reportedly at his side to validate the information he provided during the FFM.

The people described their livelihood to be dependent on fishing and gold panning. During the months of June to December, when the water level is high, they engage in fishing. While during the months of January to May, when water level is low, they engage in small scale gold panning. Both of these are now reportedly disrupted.

Even if the community does not know the status of the tailings, its volume or its impact, the water level is still very high and the smell of the water is uncommon at the time. They used to gain from gold panning, an average, 1/gram/day per team or family.

Their average fish catch used to be 25 kilos every 2 days for tilapia and 75 kilos per week for eel. Since the spill, fish catch decreased significantly, the FFM found out. Tilapia catch is now down to 6 kilos every two days, while in areas near the mouth of Balog river, they cannot catch any fish anymore. As such, the FFM concluded that for this community near the mouth of creek where the tailing spill was concentrated, livelihood opportunities were lost to mine spill.

The FFM noted too that people in this community could not freely speak their mind, “all the more when the representatives of the mining company were around.” There is also a police perimeter fence from the entrance to the TP3. The community is reportedly under tight guard by Philex personnel who watch the area using telescopes.

Downstream communities include irrigated agricultural lands. But so far, the investigating groups from the FFM said there is no data presented or reported yet as to the effect of the breaching to these agricultural communities, except for the National Irrigation Authority’s order of a shutdown of its irrigation systems in the area as a mitigating measure.

During the tailings spill, Virgilio Garcia, principal hydrologist of the National Power corporation, told investigating groups that “water for the irrigation was not affected because they were able to close the irrigation waterways. However, since the water level was increasing, they needed to open the water drainage to the Agno River. “

Nearly washed out houses downstream of Balog River, Aug 2012 (Contributed photo / bulatlat.com)

Asked about the possibility of the tailings flowing to the Lingayen Gulf, since the Agno River flows to several municipalities of Pangasinan going to the gulf, National Power Corporation and San Roque Power corp. officials interviewed by the FFM replied that “it will take some time before actual damage can be determined. But another perceived major impact of the mining spill is the build-up of sediments in San Roque Dam.”

The DENR has not yet released the 20.6-Million metric ton estimated mine spill at the time, but these power plant officials noted that “a long time ago, Agno River was considerably deep. But now, it is silted due to mining and soil erosion. This has a long-term adverse effect on fishing harvests.”

The FFM reported that Philex workers are also affected. “Though regular workers continue to receive wages, casual workers are no longer paid,” the FFM gathered.

Massive mine spill comes with massive threats

Various peoples’ groups have pointed to the DENR estimate of 20.6-MT mine spill as massive, being 13 times worse than the mine spill that killed Boac River in Marinduque. After 10 years of the Marinduque accident, the Boac river is still dead. Studies revealed that up to now coastal sediments near Boac outflow contains high amount of copper, manganese, lead and zinc.

Philex’s claim that its mine spill is “harmless and biodegradable” is also being questioned by various groups. Though the company claims that the tailings discharge is non-toxic, their milling plant uses the flotation technology, which uses xanthates and frothers. Critics pointed out that the United States regulations categorize frothers as a cause of both immediate and delayed health hazards. Canadian regulations classified it as an eye or skin irritant and may cause corneal injury. Prolonged or repeated exposure to large amounts can cause narcosis (drowsiness).

Also, this chemical is classified under “Hazardous Chemical” as defined by the Occupational Hazard and Safety Administration (OSHA). Ingestion in large amounts may cause tremors and convulsions and inhalation in excessive amounts may cause irritation to eyes, respiratory tract and lungs.

Xanthate, meanwhile, is a severe corrosive and 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.

Unfortunately, these are the potential dangers to both the environment and the downstream communities. But as critics said, there is no obvious mechanism today within the mines or the government to arrest these problems. They lamented that the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB), after more than a month of monitoring the dam incident, still has not come up with assessment and measures to address these problems. All they have accomplished so far is the computation of millions in penalty fee to be imposed on Philex Mines. But the company may still get away with reducing it.

Some recommendations

The FFM recommended the holding of more independent investigations and impact assessments, even as it reported the various recommendations of all groups it interviewed at the site – from the village leaders to regional government offices that wished for better technical support. They also reported that there is a need to provide immediate relief, livelihood assistance and compensation to affected families for damage to properties, crops, livestock, animals and foregone incomes.

The FFM said there is a need to “ensure easy access, safety and coordination of affected communities to the government and non-government organizations. They recommend that fishers and affected communities organize themselves and participate in assessment and planning for relief and rehabilitation work.

As Philex announced plans to contest the “fines and adverse findings’ due to the mine spill, as well as plans to resume mining operations soon, the groups that comprise the independent FFM, as well as green groups such as the Kalikasan Partylist urged for stiffer sanctions, deeper and more transparent probes, immediate assistance to the affected communities, vigilant testing of water samples, among others.

As urgent measure, the Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA) reiterated its demand for the immediate decommissioning of TP3, saying that failure to do so is dangerous for the San Roque Dam downstream of the Agno River and the population whose livelihoods depend on its waters. “The San Roque Dam virtually becomes a TP4 for Philex Mining Corporation,” the FFM reported. It warned that the “heavy siltation will have its toll on the lifespan of the dam and to its major functions.”

Members of the FFM and green groups demanded that Philex should take the lead in undertaking the clean up and rehabilitation of the entire affected area, including watersheds, and at the same time, allow for “massive information dissemination and safety measures for persons and volunteers who will engage in the clean-up, reforestation and rehabilitation of the areas.”

“There’s no skirting the fact that Philex is entirely responsible, and must not only pay for the full ecological restoration of the affected environment, but also the indemnification of the affected communities,” Clemente Bautista, national coordinator of green group Kalikasan-PNE, said at a protest in front of Philex head office in Manila last week. He said “Philex must pay for the daily cost of living of every affected peasant, fisherfolk and miners’ family for every day that they are unable to work due to the immediate and possible long-term effects of the mine wastes on their livelihood.”

The Katribu partylist reiterated its calls on the Aquino government to pass the People’s Mining Bill, “a bill that seeks to re-orient the current destructive , lopsided and export-oriented character of the present mining industry.” (https://www.bulatlat.com)

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