People’s scientists and communities are using science to make mining companies and governments accountable.
by DEE AYROSO
MANILA – Mining-affected communities and environmentalists are finding ways to make mining TNCs and colluding governments account for environmental crimes, using that which had been largely accessible only to the latter: science.
At the recently-concluded International People’s Conference on Mining (IPCM), activists from mining-affected communities and people’s scientists discussed community-based scientific tools and methods to help people investigate corporate mining accountability.
The IPCM, held in Quezon City on July 30 to Aug.1, gathered more than 140 delegates from 29 countries to discuss international response to the impacts on people and the environment brought on by global mining liberalization.
“People’s scientists will challenge the failing science of the mining industry,” said Dr. Mark Muller, a geophysicist and member of the London Mining Network with over 20 years experience in the mining industry. He added that mining TNCs “continue to pollute the world” even with their use of science.
“The mining industry believes that they have complete monopoly of scientific knowledge and methods,” Muller said, adding that 95 percent of scientists in the world are employed by mining and oil companies.
The IPCM, however, paves the way for the formation of a global network of scientists that will provide technical information to communities and movements confronting mining TNCs.
“I’m confident that one of the outcomes of the conference is that we will identify tools and strategies that will allow community people to use good, robust science to use as evidence to hold companies accountable and hold them to their responsibility to mine, if they are allowed to mine, without polluting the environment,” Muller said.
How communities can monitor mining pollution
“Mining pollution comes from companies’ failure to monitor their mining during operations,” he said. Because of the failure of corporate mining to fulfil their responsibility, the burden of monitoring environmental impact falls on mining-affected communities.
“There is terrible irony here, that these expensive tests, mining companies can afford to use them, and yet, they don’t use them effectively,” he said. When mining-affected communities approach these companies with the results of their own investigation, they reject it “because they were not recorded using expensive methodology.”
In his presentation at an IPCM workshop, Muller said communities should monitor for possible pollution at different stages of mining, namely: in the water, during the exploration stage; in the soil, during the construction of the mines; and in the air, during operation and production. A biodiversity survey should also be conducted to measure degradation during the closure and rehabilitation of the mine.
In spite of their limited resources, Muller said, community residents can still do a lot to understand what is about to happen or what has happened in their environment.
Even only in the exploration stage, community residents should be made aware of what to expect. One such activity during exploration is trenching, which could cause scarring of landscape, loss of vegetation, and possible erosion. Trenches should also be properly rehabilitated.
The residents could take photos and video documentation of the company’s drilling rigs and other survey equipment, and trenching, Muller said.
Depending on what ore body or mineral will be mined, scientists aiding the community can help estimate mining depth, what methods, equipment and processing will be used by the company, for an early indication of potential risks and impact, he said.
When the mining company begins drilling, at the mid- to late-stage of the exploration, it will also build a mud-pit or mud tank, which will contain drilling “mud” – a combination of fine rock materials, and chemical additives required for the drilling fluid. This is toxic in varying degrees, depending on the chemical additives, said Muller.
“Drilling mud poses an environmental risk: rivers and soils will become contaminated if the mud-pit overflows in heavy rains or if the pit-lining fails,” said a slide from Muller’s presentation.
During mine operation, Muller said there should be monitoring to check if waste materials are “turning acid” in the disposal areas – the waste-rock disposal, or rock dumps, and the mine tailings dams. Acid mine drainage (AMD) can contaminate ground water. He said that if sulphide materials are present in the waste dumps, it is likely that AMD will occur.
He said that mining companies are duty-bound to monitor pollution threats at different stages. Companies should:
• Take a baseline sample of water quality a year prior to mine operation;
• Regularly monitor the water quality according to their environmental impact management plan;
• Conduct a laboratory chemical analysis of water samples from upstream and downstream the mines;
• And submit a report of the results regularly to mining regulatory bodies.
Tools for the people
“To understand the problems caused by mining companies in the environment, communities can do these, too, but tools are expensive,” Muller said.
There are many tools available for community to monitor the water quality, but these vary in accuracy, he added.
These range from the cheaper-priced litmus paper and testing strips, ph checkers used by aquarium hobbyists, to the more expensive but also more accurate digital probes for long-term testing used by the hydroponic industry.
Aside from the expensive cost of tools and laboratory tests, Muller said communities also face legal defensibility, as there are strict protocols in getting samples for testing. Companies can also reject the test results, on grounds that the community used the cheaper, therefore, less accurate tools. Communities must consider these factors in their monitoring.
“When doing analysis, ask what the result will be,” advised Australian Prof. Ron Watkins, of the Environmental Inorganic Geochemistry Group, who spoke at the IPCM. He said it is not meant to pre-empt the results, but to effectively choose what instrument to use, to ensure the test will yield needed answers.
Science as basis of unity
The group Advocates of Science and Technology for the People (Agham), which led the workshop, said science may also be a tool to unite the people, to fight back against destructive mining companies and a government that tolerates them.
Feny Cosico, Agham secretary general, said the environmental investigation mission (EIM) combines local community experience with the field investigation led by scientists and technologists.
The EIM is a participatory process which investigates the biophysical, social, political and economic impact of the project on the people, said Cosico in her presentation.
Investigation includes testing the soil and water quality around the mining area, using physical, chemical and biological parameters. It also studies the effects on the health, livelihood, and perception of the population on the impact of the project. After the data collection and laboratory analysis, the experts return to the community to validate the results with the people.
“We use the EIM as a transformative tool, to raise awareness of communities,” said Cosico.
“Sometimes we use it to unite a divided community, through expert findings,” she said. There are cases where some community members buy the line of the mining company that there is no pollution, or doubt that they could make a case about environmental degradation. The conduct of an EIM, which involves community participation, helps remove all doubt.
Agham had joined in the conduct of EIM in the Citinickel project in Española, Palawan island, in the Philex tailings dam breach in Benguet, in the Cordillera region, and in Nueva Vizcaya where the OceanGold is mining, and the FCF is conducting exploration.
She said the EIM helps countercheck government regulation and compliance of the companies to environmental laws and policies. These were also valuable in lobbying with government regulatory bodies and even the legislative, to investigate the violations of companies.
Most of all, it serves as “a tool for mobilizing, in uniting the people to fight back,” Cosico said.
Cosico said through the EIM, communities are able to “identify the exploited and the exploiter.”
She said among the limitations in conducting the EIM are budget constraints, lack of baseline data, and government confidentiality for the environmental impact statement (EIS) by the mining company. She said there were also questions on the credibility and accuracy of the EIM.
“We stand by our result, because we know it’s scientific, and with community participation,” Cosico said.
Cosico said with the support mechanism among people’s scientists from the IPCM, she is hopeful that “we can make use of tools to pursue cases against destructive mining companies.”
People’s action as primary
Having the tools and training to monitor the effects of mining will bring light on the extent of destruction and violations by the company, but these are not the only weapons to hold them accountable, the delegates said.
The people’s determined, collective action is still more decisive.
In the case of OceanaGold Corp. in Nueva Vizcaya province, the result of an EIM in April 2014, led by the Alyansa ng Nagkakaisang Novo Vizcayano para sa Kalikasan (Annvik) along with Agham, helped spur residents to action. But even years before, the affected communities have been putting up barricades and protests.
In April this year, Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) Director Leo Jasareno proposed a multi-disciplinary team to investigate OceanaGold. This was in response to a position paper submitted by Annvik, Agham and Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment and other groups, calling for the suspension of OceanaGold and for compensation to the affected communities.
“The case of OceanaGold’s Didipio mine, widely acclaimed within the large-scale mining industry as ‘the overall safest mining operation in the Philippines’, is illustrative of the pollutive, destructive, and dangerous brand of ‘responsible mining’ permitted and encouraged by our mining laws and other related policies,” the groups said in their position paper.
The paper was supported with the EIM report which showed that affected rivers have unsafe levels of metal concentration.
The groups still await government action. Meanwhile, the campaign against OceanaGold and other destructive, large-scale mining in the Cagayan Valley region continues to gain support from various sectors, including the Catholic church.
At the IPCM, a South African delegate described a rapid assessment kit that they developed to monitor the effects of mining.
“It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a solution that empowers,” he said.
And an empowered people may just be the best tool to take on mining giants. In various parts of the world, communities will be facing TNCs like OceanaGold, both with their strength in numbers, and their science.