“These mining companies have the historical records of violating environmental standards.”
By DEE AYROSO
MANILA – A group of environmentalists and scientists has released the result of a study which links last year’s massive “red” flood in Zambales province to the open-pit mining in Sta. Cruz town.
The Center for Environmental Concerns (CEC) said the ecological destruction caused by the decade-long nickel mining in Sta. Cruz aggravates the impact of natural calamities, the most recent of which was Typhoon Lando (Koppu) in 2015 which caused one of the most severe and devastating flood.
The group also recorded “massive losses in livelihood and worsening health conditions of residents.”
“There is a huge possibility that the (mining) operations have a huge contribution on the massive mudflows experienced by communities during Typhoon Lando,” said CEC researcher Rhea Candog in a statement.
Candog said the study even more strengthens the call by mining-affected communities to stop the mining in Sta. Cruz. The CEC and environmentalist groups under the Scrap the Mining Act of 1995 Network are calling for the repeal of the said law, or Republic Act 7942, which was signed 21 years ago on March 3.
CEC also called on government agencies to conduct a comprehensive investigation into the effects of mining in Sta. Cruz. The mining companies should immediately rehabilitate the mine areas, and compensate the affected communities.
The CEC conducted the study along with 15 other groups which took part in the National Fact-finding and Solidarity Mission (NFFSM) from Nov. 4 to 8, 2015, a few weeks after Typhoon Lando hit Northern and Central Luzon in mid-October. The NFFSM conducted technical field research in the six major rivers in Sta. Cruz and in selected farm lots. They also held focused group discussions and key informant interviews involving residents from 16 villages.
CEC released its report on March 1, as part of the Green Vote 2016 Campaign which called for “zero vote” for pro-mining candidates. They also called on electoral candidates to join the efforts to scrap the Mining Act.
Writ of Kalikasan and Suspensions
In October 2015, 20 out of the 25 villages of Sta. Cruz were submerged for the first time in waters which came with thick reddish-brown mud and deadwood. Seven people were killed and 13,790 residents were affected by flooding in the town.
“Majority of the population of Sta. Cruz relies on agriculture, aquaculture and fishing for livelihood, but because of the mudflows during the typhoon, most farmlands and fishponds were covered with thick amount of ‘red’ mud. The coasts were also affected by the sedimentation which covers nearby coral reefs. The problem is also causing lesser catch for fisherfolks,” the CEC statement said.
There are six companies with a Minerals and Production Sharing Agreement (MPSA), covering 12,000 hectares in Sta. Cruz. Four of them are operating: the DMCI subsidiary, Zambales Diversified Mining Corp. (ZDMC), Filipinas Mining, the partner of the Chinese company LnL Archipelago Minerals Inc. (Lami), Benguetcorp Nickel Mining Inc. (BNMI), and Eramen Minerals Corp. The companies extract the nickel ore which are hauled by trucks to a loading bay from where they are transported to China.
The companies have denied accountability in the flooding. The Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) in Central Luzon sent an investigating team that cleared the companies of any link in the flood. The bureau also reported that the mine structures remained intact amid the typhoon.
CEC, however, noted that no report on the investigation has been made public. The companies had also persistently been subject of complaints.
“These mining companies have the historical records of violating environmental standards, such as levelling of a mountain in Bolitoc Port without an Environmental Compliance Certificate (ECC) and nickel laterite contamination in agricultural areas, fishponds and even the coasts,” Candog said.
In September 2013, the Court of Appeals granted the Writ of Kalikasan petition of Agham Partylist, which complained about Lami’s cutting of trees. The CA decision followed the SC resolution in June 2013 which first granted the writ and passed on the case to the CA.
In January 2014, the SC granted another Writ of Kalikasan petition, also by the Agham Partylist against the DMCI Holdings Inc. and the DMCI Mining Corporation for leveling the mountain in Bolitoc village, Sta. Cruz for its construction of a port. The SC also issued a temporary restraining order (TRO), but only for the construction of the port, not the mining operations.
That same year, in July 2014, the MGB ordered the suspension of mining operations of the firms Lami, Eramen and BNMI, following complaints of nickel siltation in farms, waterways and coastal areas. The companies were ordered to transfer their stockpile to designated areas with proper drainage, and rehabilitate the mining areas, the affected river systems and areas contaminated with nickel. They were also required to construct an alternative mining road.
The MGB also ordered the Lami, Eramen, and BNMI to pay a total of P3.2 million ($68,000) in compensation to some 30 affected farmers.
The CEC report, however, said that in spite of the suspension, the BNMI was allowed to send shipments of nickel from Bolitoc port.
In February 2015, the MGB issued a temporary lifting order for the three firms in February, pending full compliance with the conditions. The suspension was fully lifted in April. Come July, MGB ordered a suspension anew. In August, the MGB lifted the suspension order for the firms and mining operations carried on unabated since then.
Despite the government clearance and denials by the mining companies, Sta. Cruz residents who were traumatized from the disaster still blame mining for the worsening floods.
Disaster waiting to happen
In the fact-finding and solidarity mission in Bayto village, Sta. Cruz on Feb. 26 to 27, residents recalled that the flood in October 2015 came too quick and too high.
Jose Morello, 66, told Bulatlat that flood water was just an inch lower than the second floor of his house. He said he stayed in his house, while many neighbours evacuated to higher ground. Residents said the flood collapsed even cement walls of houses, and scraped the pavement. When the flood subsided, it left thick, knee-deep reddish-brown mud.
Before the mines began, Morello recalled the flood was only ankle-deep. “The flood water was clear, there was no mud, and it never went up the road. But now, it was sudden and unexpected,” he said.
The CEC study said the Cabaluan river rose six meters above its normal level. The high-pressure water that crashed from the mountains scoured the riverbanks and carried sediments, trees and vegetation downstream to the communities. Wastes from the mine areas, such as tree cuttings were also carried by water.
Although the sedimentation which worsened the flood may not wholly be blamed on mining, but the CEC said there is a big probability that the extractive activities contributed to the problem, specially since the barren mine areas were less able to hold soil and rainwater.
“Because of the deforestation and stripping off of the topsoil, the soil is losing its natural absorbing capacity causing flash floods into low-lying areas where most Sta. Cruz communities are located. The unprotected loose soil was also carried by the heavy rainfall causing sedimentation problems in the rivers,” Candog said.
The CEC report noted the lack of catchment facilities, such as containment dams to regulate water flow from upstream.
Dwindling income for farmers and fisherfolk
The CEC report said the agricultural and fish production have been affected since mining operations started in 2006. People attribute the diminishing production to the nickel laterite, which had contaminated their rice fields, waterways and coastline.
For farmers, harvest had gone down from an average of 100 to 120 cavans per hectare in 2009, to only 75 to 80 cavans. The nickel laterite-laden soil is hard to till, and water is hard to permeate. Rice plants grown were stunted. Farmers tried to remedy this by applying more fertilizer, which jacks up their production costs, but hardly makes a difference.
Candog cited the case of a 1.8 hectare farm in Guisguis village, which was covered with 10-inch nickel-laden mud.
For middle-scale fisherfolk, the average fish catch of 50 kilos in 2000 has dwindled to less than a kilo; their income had gone down from P300 to only P30 ($6 to 64 cents) a day. Many fisherfolk have gone bankrupt and sold their fishing boats and tools.
The report cited the Tabalong river and Pamonoran creek which used to be abundant sources of food such as fish, crabs, shrimp and snails, but have now become shallow and murky, and rarely yields any catch.
Vegetable and mango production were also affected as red dust particles cover the flowers and fruits.
“The residents and local health workers also confirmed an astonishing increase in the prevalence of respiratory diseases, such as asthma and colds,” Candog said.
Residents reported eye irritation, cough and asthma triggered by the red dust. “These are caused by the 200 to 300 trucks containing the stripped nickel laterites passing two to three times a day on the town’s main roads,” said Candog.
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