Thursday, October 25, 2012

The horror of toxic mine spills

Philippine Daily Inquirer/OPINION/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

In the 1980s, long before the deadly Marcopper mine spill shocked us witless, I went to Marinduque to document for a church-based organization the havoc that Marcopper had been wreaking on the sea and the lives of fishing communities living near Calancan Bay. 

Environmental activism was not very much in vogue then but the social action arm of the Catholic Church was the voice in the wilderness that called attention to the wanton destruction of the environment in that part of Luzon.
 Marinduque Bishop Rafael Lim, then chair of the Luzon Secretariat of Social Action, stood tall against the massive destruction in his diocese. But the country was under martial rule and unlike now, there was not much national outrage over local issues then. 

I saw for myself Marcopper’s giant kilometric pipes jutting out far into the sea and pumping, pumping, pumping out toxic mine byproducts as if the world would end tomorrow anyway. Day or night, one could see a deadly sheen on the surface of the water and imagine fish na nangingisay (in the throes of death). One could see beaches turned into mud-covered landscapes that cracked under the noonday sun. One could see rashes on the bodies of fishermen. One could see the imminent death of creation.

 I wrote a long feature on Marinduque’s woes in a church social action anniversary publication, with on-the-spot line sketches by an artist who had come with me, and stark black-and white photos that I took, one of them of a huge pipe dumping poison into the sea. (I have a photo of myself standing on top of a huge pipe.) I could not hide my dismay. I wrote then: “But the church leaders are not disheartened. In Barangay Botilao in Sta. Cruz, villagers one day met to discuss the issue of pollution. In a way it was too late since Marcopper Mining has already done so much harm. President Marcos has upheld Marcopper’s petition to continue dumping its waste into Calancan Bay.” Today this would have caused a global outrage. 

 “Fishermen are hitting Marcopper’s 16-kilometer waste disposal pipeline that juts out five kilometers from the shore to the sea. They ask that a lighthouse be built on the causeway to warn sailboats at night of the pipeline. Boats traverse this area as they go farther to Quezon where waters are still clean and unpolluted.” All the fishermen could manage to plead for then was a lighthouse so they could fish somewhere else.

 “The pipeline has caused floods due to the constriction of water in the bay where islets are too close to each other. People say that a basin had been planned for the area but Marcopper opted for the cheaper pipeline. The tailings pit in Mt. Taipan has not been fully utilized when Marcopper discovered more copper ore underneath.”

 In 1986, the National Pollution Control commission under the Cory Aquino administration at last banned mine wastes from being dumped into the bay. But in the 1990s, a huge unprecedented environmental disaster happened. Marcopper’s tailings containment pond broke and continuously unleashed tons and tons of toxic matter that poisoned everything in its way. Again, as if there was no tomorrow. The spillage caused national and international furor. In an article I wrote for the Inquirer, I could only begin with a cliché: “It was a disaster waiting to happen.” As far as I know the Canadian mining company has not fully compensated the severely affected populace.

 Fast forward to 2012. Environmentalists’ attention is now trained on the toxic spillage from the Philex mines in the Cordillera. But little, it seems, has been heard of the government’s offer of solutions. (And if I may parenthetically add here, a collateral damage of the mine spill is the filing of a libel suit by a government official against a Facebook user and antimining advocate whose postings generated “likes.” This, despite a Supreme Court temporary restraining order on the implementation of the controversial cybercrime law.)

Outside of the Cordillera, again, it is the Church’s social action arm that is leading the call for solutions. Last month a fact-finding team (FFT) went to investigate the reported tailings leakage from Philex’s Padcal mine in Benguet. Leading the team were the National Secretariat of Social Action (Nassa) of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines and the Climate Change Congress of the Philippines (CCCP). With them were representatives of several civil society groups. 

Something in the FFT’s statement hit home: “Although Philex, the country’s largest mining corporation, is already facing penalty charges amounting to P1 billion for violating the Clean Water Act and its own environmental compliance certificate and losing P30 million per day from its suspension, the direct impact of the mining tailings on its immediate surroundings has not been given significant media attention.

”But here’s for fright night: “Dr. Esteban C. Godilano, CCCP resident scientist, said that the Philex Mines tailings spillage is massive. The MGM estimate was 20.6 million metric tons, which is 1,300 percent higher than the Marcopper accident in Boac, Marinduque, of 1.6 million metric tons. Ten years after the accident the Boac River is still dead. Recent studies showed that coastal sediments near the river outflow contains high amount of copper, manganese, lead and zinc.” 

 The FFT also belied Philex claims that the tailings are “biodegradable.” The indigenous communities’ loss of fishing and mining grounds as well as loss of income and safe source of food and water should leave Philex and local officials sleepless. There is so much more than what could be written here. You can download the full FFT report from the Nassa website