Disappointing response

The latest word on the spills that have halted operations at Philex Mining Corp.’s tailings dam in Benguet is that the company may now be liable for nearly P1 billion in fines, or “double or triple” the P325 million earlier computed by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. That smaller amount was based on the first spill reported last month; since then, six additional leaks have been discovered, dramatically enlarging the potential environmental damage that the sediment spills might wreak on the areas surrounding Philex’s Padcal facility, which straddles the towns of Itogon and Tuba in Benguet.

The first spill, on Aug. 1, discharged up to 6.5 tons of sedimentation into Balog River, a tributary of Agno River. Anything discharged through Agno River goes to San Roque Dam in San Manuel, Pangasinan, where fish such as tilapia and carp are raised and harvested by the communities around the dam complex. Because mine tailings contain the chemicals and wastes discharged by mine operations—cadmium, copper, lead and arsenic among them—the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources immediately imposed a ban on fishing at the dam. The fear of heavy metal contamination was partially eased when BFAR lifted the ban on Aug. 30 on the strength of tests showing that tilapia and carp samples taken from the dam remained safe for human consumption.

However, Nestor Domenden, BFAR director in the Ilocos, offered a sobering caveat. He said fishermen should still be cautious because only tilapia and carp had been sampled and tested, and the bureau “could not confidently claim that all fish from the dam are safe from consumption.” The other fish available at the dam, such as catfish, mudfish and eel, as well as freshwater shrimp, were in the deeper parts of the reservoir and were not included in the testing made on Aug. 6.

And there, in a nutshell, lies the issue at the heart of mining accidents like this. It will take years to assess the long-term impact of the mine leakage on the environment and nearby residents, but some consequences are felt immediately. The Padcal mine’s leaks have discolored and heavily silted the river, the livelihood of fishermen and families depending on the dam and surrounding bodies of water have been affected, and mine workers themselves have been left idle, with operations remaining suspended.

Philex’s response to this development has been rather disappointing. The first news of the leakage didn’t come from the company but from a text message sent by a concerned resident in Benguet. It took Philex a day to confirm the accident, and blamed it on “an unusual and heavy accumulation of rainwater in the tailings pond.” It also aired the assurance that “water and sediment from its tailings pond are safe and nontoxic.” But a statement by Fay Apil, acting chief of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau in the Cordillera, suggests some level of inattention on Philex’s part when the accident happened: “I was later told that the Philex engineers discovered a breach in the penstocks only when they realized that the volume of tailings in the pond started to drop, suggesting a leak.”

Naturally, the hint that the company might not have been entirely on top of the situation—negligent, in a word—has been vigorously swatted down in subsequent statements by Philex executives. “The accident was a result of force majeure,” said chair Manuel V. Pangilinan. “We didn’t want it to happen. There was a very unusual heavy rainfall so it was a force majeure situation for Philex.”

Indeed, who wants accidents to happen? The tragedy is that, like it or not, they do. Philex senior vice president for corporate affairs Mike Toledo’s statement was even more disingenuous. Told of the possibility of higher penalties from the DENR given the enormity of the leaks, he said it was “a violation of due process, which requires notice and hearing.”

Toledo’s knee-jerk resort to legalism does his company’s image no good. Mining is among the most controversial ventures in the public consciousness, in large part because of its sorry history of lax legal observance, environmental blight, and meager returns for the state. In the same breath as his disputatious rebuttal, Toledo vowed that Philex will “do the right thing and show that responsible mining is possible in this country.” That is everyone’s fervent hope. But he should be told that gracelessness in the face of an accident impacting on national welfare is not a good start.

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Tags: editorial , environmental damage , mining spills , philex mining corp.

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