“This political accommodation of environmental criminals speaks of rampant corruption in the bureaucracy. We sincerely hope this double standard was not bought for a low price of 1.034 billion pesos (US$ 23.8 million).” – Kalikasan PNE
By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA – One year since Philex Mines’ expired tailings dam spilled mine wastes and sludge on Benguet rivers down to San Roque Dam in Pangasinan, it has resumed commercial operations even if the problems it had caused remain unresolved. The Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE) led a picket at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) main office in Quezon City, calling for a full independent investigation on the national government’s “handling” of the mine spill case.
Last year’s incident from Philex mines unleashed the biggest minespill in Philippine history. Philex mines’ lone operating but already expired tailings dam was nearly emptied after huge holes on its floor spilled more than 20-million metric tons of its contents on previously pristine Balog Creek, down to Agno River and to San Roque Dam in Pangasinan. Yet, it has been allowed by the Aquino government to resume commercial operations while it is still “dodging its responsibility to fully restore affected ecosystems and to pay full and just compensation the affected communities and the people,” Clemente Bautista, national coordinator of Kalikasan PNE, said during their picket.
Some of the protesters joined the picket dressed like Philex Mining Company chairman Manuel V. Pangilinan, President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III and Environment secretary Ramon Paje. In a skit, they were “arrested” by the protesters for their alleged crimes on the environment, and the alleged corruption involved in covering it all up.
“The Aquino government has clearly let Philex off the hook a month after it paid a piecemeal fine, and this must immediately be investigated,” Bautista said.
Philex paid P1.034 billion ($ 23.8 million) in penalty fines to the Mines and Geosciences Bureau of DENR (MGB-DENR) on February 18, 2013. A week later, on February 26, MGB allowed Philex to resume commercial operations for four months, citing the excuse that it would allow the corporation’s rehabilitation efforts to continue.
But for the environmentalists, this P1.034-billion ($ 23.8 million) is too paltry for the actual extent of damage Philex caused on the river system of Benguet, Pangasinan and the San Roque Dam that irrigates parts of Central Luzon. Compared to the needed amount to rehabilitate the Agno River and its various affected tributaries, P1.034-billion (US$ 23.8 million) is “a pittance,” said Bautista.
“The P1.034-B (US$ 23.8 million) should have been spent for impact assessment, river rehabilitation, and compensation to downstream communities in Pangasinan, but where is it now?” asked Bautista.
Also, Kalikasan PNE said, Philex has not yet made a dent on the reported 13.51 million cubic meters of mine waste it deposited in the San Roque Dam and the damages it wreaked on the watershed. The National Power Corporation is demanding P6.24-B ($143.8 million) from Philex for the cost of its cleanup, or Philex can do the cleanup themselves, the company had said.
Worse, all these still unattended environmental disasters could be repeated with Philex’s continued commercial operations, the environmentalists warned. They asked why the DENR and President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III are allowing it. Clemente said that Philex’s Padcal mine site in Benguet is using the same structurally compromised tailings dam. As such, there is a strong possibility of another mine tailings disaster occurring.
The fact that Philex’s lone operating minewaste dam in Padcal has already reached its extended lifespan is not being publicly discussed or addressed by the DENR, by President Aquino who supports large-scale mining, and by the biggest media outfits in the Philippines, the protesters said.
Philex Mines is chaired by Manuel V. Pangilinan, 65, the Filipino tycoon leading a known Indonesian crony’s investment arms. In the Philippines, these investments cover controlling stakes not just in Philex Mining Corp, but also a dominant hold on telecoms (PLDT, Smart, Sun), hospitals, infrastructures and tollways (Metro Pacific, Manila North Tollways Corp.), and utilities (Maynilad, Meralco). Pangilinan-led companies also own stakes on TV broadcasting and newspapers (TV5, Businessworld, Inquirer, etc). Protesters fear the scale of his holding companies’ businesses and ads help him cover up the damning lapses in the operations of Philex Mines, in the minespill that occurred last year and the absence of new, more stable tailings dam after the present dam being used has expired.
Corruption and neglect under Aquino?
“DENR Secretary Ramon Paje and MGB Director Leo Jasareno should be investigated on why they extended the temporary operation of Philex and where the P1.034 billion (US$ 23.8 million) went. With so much corruption recently being exposed under the Aquino government and with DENR failing to be transparent where the money went, a serious investigation from the Department of Justice and Congress is warranted,” Clemente said.
Pending its own investigation, the Aquino government seems to have ignored the already existing “hard evidence that Philex has caused massive pollution and environmental destruction,” the environmentalists said. They pelted the DENR with questions as to why it did not apply this information and the questions still hanging over the safety of its operations when it was deciding to allow Philex’s resumption of operations.
Reports quoted Pangilinan as saying last week that his company has not been required by the government to clean the mine wastes that may have reached the San Roque Dam in Pangasinan when its tailings dam in the firm’s Benguet mine site broke down on Aug. 1 last year.
“This political accommodation of environmental criminals speaks of rampant corruption in the bureaucracy. We sincerely hope this double standard was not bought for a low price of 1.034 billion pesos (US$ 23.8 million),” Bautista said.
Results of an independent environmental investigation mission last year confirmed the serious negative impacts of the structural failure of Philex’s tailings dam on downstream communities and the environment. The affected Balog River was rendered biologically dead, and heavy metal levels reached as high as 4.5 times the threshold limit. Fisheries and irrigation water were also reportedly greatly affected.