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Mining beyond the ‘bad rep’

/ 12:08 AM November 02, 2016

Among environmentalists, and perhaps among the general public as well, “mining” is a dirty word.

Indeed, current Environment Secretary Gina Lopez seems to be capitalizing on the “bad rep” bedeviling the mining industry, focusing her early efforts on getting “irresponsible” mining firms closed down, and investigating the practices and permits of even legitimate concerns. Mining, it’s been said, contrary to claims that it brings employment and development to remote areas, operates among the most impoverished communities. The firms exploit and despoil the environment and then abandon the area and its people when the ore and minerals can no longer be extracted profitably.

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But in a recent presentation at a media forum, JB Baylon, vice president for corporate communications and Dennis Zamora, senior vice president for marketing and strategic planning of Nickel Asia Corp. (NAC), sought to present the “other side” of the picture.

NAC is the country’s largest producer of “lateritic nickel ore” and is one of the largest in the world. (An industry figure once declared that what oil is to Saudi Arabia and other Opec countries, nickel is to the Philippines.) It began operations in 1977, when the company first shipped nickel from its oldest mine, Rio Tuba, in Bataraza, Palawan. Since then, the firm has expanded to four mines, and acquired a fifth operation, Geogen Corp., which is still undergoing development.

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Customers from Japan, China and Australia use the ore to produce ferronickel and nickel pig iron to produce stainless steel and carbon steel. NAC also supplies limonite ore to Coral Bay Nickel Corp., the country’s first hydrometallurgical nickel processing plant where it has a share, as well as a processing plant in Claver, Surigao del Norte, called Taganito HPAL.

At the same time, said the NAC official, the company is also investing in renewable energy, looking into an area in Subic where they plan to put up a facility to produce 150 MW of both wind and solar energy.

Last year, said Baylon, two of NAC’s biggest operations—Taganito Mining in Surigao and Rio Tuba in Palawan, paid a combined P2.5 billion in taxes. And following an Aquino administration order requiring all mining firms to earn an ISO 14001 certification, “we are proud to say that all our operating mines have earned this international environmental system certification.”

To critics who claim that mining brings nothing but despoliation and poverty, Baylon showed “before and after” photos of how the Rio Tuba mine site looked like when they arrived, joking that “there were seven nomad families and 7,000 malaria mosquitoes.”

“Slowly, the community was transformed,” Baylon related. The small village the miners encountered is now a development with sturdy homes, including a free hospital for employees and a school and sports complex. “Contrary to what people say that mining brings poverty, in this area mining brought development,” Baylon noted.

Employees enjoy free housing, and education as well in the school run and managed by the De La Salle system. Indeed, said Baylon, “Bataraza is now the most advanced, in a certain sense, municipality outside Puerto Princesa (the provincial capital).”

In the Rio Tuba mine, NAC operates an open pit, mainly because, said Baylon, “nickel can be found in the top 30 meters of the soil.”

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Now, the term “open pit mining,” often accompanied by photos of a mountainside gouged out by an ugly-looking muddy pit, conjures hellish images. But Baylon said the company is committed to “rehabilitating” or reforesting the site of a mine once it is “mined out.” “After we were done in areas… the foresters take over and they re-contour the open pit to fill it up with top soil and start planting.”

Nature is indeed resilient, he added, after a few years, the animals return to their old habitats, and in seven years’ time, “a mined-out area becomes a forest.”

For his part, Zamora, whose father Manuel was the first president of NAC, pointed out that with our strict mining laws, “the solution to the problem is not to make the law stricter but really to implement the laws as they were designed to be implemented.” As for the taxes owed to government, Zamora notes that “for us it’s a matter of enforcement and as a company I’m proud to say that we fulfill and live by all those obligations.”

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TAGS: DENR, Gina Lopez, mining, Nickel Asia Corp., Rio Tuba
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