Marinduque is ‘pushed to the wall’
The island-province of Marinduque has become known as a cautionary tale about the ravages of irresponsible mining. It took Canadian mining giant Placer Dome a couple of decades to wreak environmental destruction on major coral reefs in Calancan Bay and to severely contaminate the Mogpog and Boac Rivers with toxic mine waste—none of which has ever been cleaned up. The ongoing environmental impacts are only part of the story.
Fishermen from numerous villages around Calancan Bay lost their livelihoods as the bay filled up with more than 200 million tons of mine tailings dumped there between 1975 and 1991. Two children died when they were buried in mine waste as a shoddy dam burst and the Mogpog River was flooded with toxic mine silt in 1993. The banks of the Boac River still hold tall mounds of tailings that were left to continuously pump acid and heavy metals into the river after another catastrophic dam failure filled that river with mine waste in 1996. These contaminated rivers no longer support the livelihood and economic activities of nearby villages, as they once did. Placer Dome, which had managed two copper mines in Marinduque, fled the Philippines in 2001, leaving the mess behind.
Canada’s Barrick Gold, the world’s largest gold mining company that bought out Placer Dome, has spent the better half of a decade fighting the province in court rather than owning up to the company’s responsibility to put things right in Marinduque. Once again, Marinduque is the bellwether—evidence that for all its rhetoric about “responsible mining,” the mining industry is still more concerned with its bottom line than in doing what’s right.
In spite of a long legal struggle with competent American lawyers, on Sept. 17 Marinduque provincial administrator Eleuterio Raza told the Inquirer that Barrick had offered the province around $20 million, take it or leave it. According to the Inquirer report, “[T]he amount, however, would further be reduced to $13.5 million after litigation expenses had been paid. ‘These are crumbs,’ said Raza, ‘but we are being pushed to the wall.’” It is perfectly clear that this extremely low level of recovery from Barrick is woefully inadequate to protect the health and safety of the people of Marinduque.
Numerous independent scientific studies of the ravages of mining on Marinduque, including by the United States Geological Survey, confirm the ongoing toxic impacts of uncontained mine waste and unrehabilitated rivers and coastal areas. Furthermore, numerous dams and structures have not been maintained since the mine ceased operations in 1996. Placer Dome’s own consultants, Canada’s Klohn Crippen, warned in a 2001 report, leaked just before Placer Dome fled the Philippines, of “danger to life and property” related to inadequate mine structures holding back waste.
Any recovery from Barrick has to be applied to the immediate stabilization of these dangerous mine structures, rehabilitation of contaminated rivers and coastal areas, and permanent solutions for the tons of mine waste still at the defunct mine sites in the mountains of Marinduque. What Barrick has reportedly laid on the table is woefully inadequate for this task. The cleanup of mine waste in contaminated sites around the world indicates that rehabilitation on a scale that is required in Marinduque can easily run into hundreds of millions of dollars. Canada’s Teck Resources spent $55 million just on studies to prepare for the rehabilitation of areas it contaminated by dumping 9.97 million tons of slag containing heavy metals into the Columbia River. The cleanup has been estimated to run as high as $1 billion.
It’s not that Barrick cannot afford to do the right thing. The mining giant paid its new cochair $17 million in 2012, including an $11.9-million signing bonus. Barrick’s fine for an environmental breach at a mine that is still under construction in Chile came to $16 million, more than Marinduque would apparently get for 30 years of environmental damage.
For the “crumbs” it is offering Marinduque, Barrick is demanding highly valuable settlement provisions in return to secure the firm permanent legal immunity in this case. One of these, the Inquirer reported, is a clause stating that Placer Dome never operated on the island. “That’s something difficult for us to accept. It’s common knowledge that Placer Dome was a managing partner of Marcopper,” Raza was quoted as saying. Recent reports indicate that the provincial board has rejected the current settlement agreement, described as “onerous.”
What President Aquino, his adviser on environmental protection Secretary Nereus Acosta, Environment Secretary Ramon Paje, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and the people of Marinduque have to recognize is that if the true costs of ongoing contamination of the environment and risk to human health and safety from the legacy of irresponsible mining in Marinduque are not covered by Barrick, these will ultimately be borne by taxpayers, locally and nationally. Barrick’s unwillingness to shoulder the responsibility of ensuring that the environment and people of Marinduque are made secure means that the province’s unfortunate role as the poster child for irresponsible mining, past and present, will surely continue.
Catherine Coumans, PhD, of MiningWatch Canada, lived in Marinduque in 1988-1990 and has since returned to it many times. She says it was her experience with irresponsible mining on the island that led her to leave an academic career in favor of working with local communities to counter the damaging effects of mining.