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It was a disaster waiting to happen

Inquirer’s banner story two days ago: “Court finds Marcopper liable for 1993 disaster.” Yes, after all hell broke loose in Marinduque 28 years and five months ago and after a 21-year legal battle.

The 30-plus plaintiffs, the report said, had accused Marcopper Mining Corp. of negligent acts that resulted in the breach of the Maguila-guila Dam and the flooding of the Mogpog River with silt water at the height of Typhoon “Monang.” Three years later, in 1996, another spill occurred, leaving the Boac river almost dead. These Marcopper industrial disasters were the Philippines’ worst, and Mother Nature was crying to the heavens for retribution. Sadly, the material compensation for the plaintiffs can never be enough.

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Marinduque, the island known for its colorful open-air biblical passion play during Holy Week that draws thousands of tourists, had its real experience of passion and death during the Christmas season of 1993.

Suddenly, on Dec. 6, 1993, Marinduque’s gullies and rivulets, streams, and rivers were filled with toxic liquid that spilled out from the mine site of Marcopper Mining Corp. Pollution caused by Marcopper (parent company: Placer Dome Inc. of Canada) had long been in the news. In 1988, the Inquirer ran a three-part investigative report on the havoc Marcopper had been inflicting continuously for more than a decade. Warnings had been sounded consistently since the early 1980s, long before environmental consciousness was the norm. The small fishermen of Marinduque were among the first to sound the alarm for obvious reasons—dwindling catch and health issues.

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In 1984, long before the deadly Marcopper mine spill, I went to Marinduque to document for a church-based publication the problems of the fishing communities living near Calancan Bay. The social action arm of the Catholic Church was the voice in the wilderness that called the attention to the environmental destruction in that part of Luzon. Marinduque Bishop Rafael Lim, then chair of the Luzon Secretariat of Social Action, stood tall against the wanton neglect. But the country was under Marcos martial rule, and there was not much national outrage over local issues. President Marcos had upheld Marcopper’s petition to continue dumping its waste into Calancan Bay. Today, this would have caused global outrage.

I saw for myself Marcopper’s 16-kilometer pipeline that carried toxic waste far into the sea. Day or night, one could see a deadly sheen on the surface of the water. Beaches were turned into mud-covered landscapes that cracked under the noonday sun. Fishermen had rashes on their bodies. One could feel the imminent death of creation.

I wrote a long feature on Marinduque’s woes in a church social action publication, with on-the-spot line sketches by an artist who came with me, and stark black-and-white photos that I took, one of them of a huge pipe that carried poison to the sea. I had a photo of myself standing on top of that pipe. I could not hide my dismay.

The fishermen asked that a lighthouse be built on the causeway to warn them of the pipeline when they sailed at night to fish elsewhere. The pipeline had been causing floods due to the constriction of water in the bay where islets were too close to each other. People said that a basin had been planned for the area, but Marcopper opted for the cheaper pipeline. The tailings pit in Mount Tapian had not been fully utilized because Marcopper, it was reported, had discovered more copper ore underneath. Marcopper always made representations before the government and promised to improve its waste disposal system. At one time, it simply paid a daily fine while it continued polluting the environment.

In 1986, the National Pollution Control Commission under the Cory Aquino administration at last banned mine wastes from being dumped into the bay. It was in 1993, during the watch of President Fidel V. Ramos, that Marcopper’s tailings containment pond broke and unleashed tons of toxic matter that poisoned everything in its way. The spillage caused a national and international furor.

On March 24, 1996, another mining disaster occurred when the pit with leftover mine tailing was damaged and caused the flow of toxic waste into the river system. It was a deadly one, if not deadlier than the 1993 disaster.

In an article I wrote for the Inquirer in the aftermath of the 1993 tragedy, I could only begin with a cliché: “It was a disaster waiting to happen.”

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