Another Disaster Looms in Marinduque
by VINIA M. DATINGUINOO
SIX YEARS after becoming victims of the country's worst mining disaster, the people of Marinduque, some 170 kms south of Manila, are being threatened with yet another calamity from the very same mine.
Although the Marcopper mine from which more than three million tons of toxic mine tailings spilled and wound up in the local river system has long been closed, experts say four of its dams and a waste pit are in danger of having its contents spilling out and burying the villages below.
This even as Boac River remains host to almost a million tons of mine wastes from processed ore, which are still leaching out acids and heavy metals. Thousands of villagers who were promised compensation after the 1996 tailings spill, which killed the river and destroyed homes and farmland, have also yet to be paid. In addition, more children are being found to have illnesses related to the release of the tailings into the environment, and health workers fear the number of cases will only keep on growing.
But the Calvary that Marinduqueños are undergoing may just get worse now that Placer Dome Inc., the Canadian transnational mining giant that used to co-own Marcopper Mining Corp., has turned Pontius Pilate and washed its hands of the troubled island province. Late last year, Placer Dome packed its bags and said goodbye to the Philippines, saying its job in the Marinduque cleanup was done.
Left in that island province is Marcopper, which says it wants to concentrate on finishing the cleanup of the Boac River by hauling back to Tapian pit the remaining 821,380 tons of tailings that spilled when the pit burst in 1996 and are now still in the river beds, levee banks, and nearby areas.
Marcopper has already begun employing villagers in two barangays there to put the tailings in bags, even if the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has yet to issue a permit for the company to use such a method.
But experts such as engineer Arthur Saldivar-Sali warn that dumping the tailings back into the Tapian Pit could cause it to collapse and spill millions of tons of toxic tailings into surrounding areas. Sali had worked with the Canadian research firm Klohn Crippen in preparing a June 2001 report that warned of imminent disaster in the former mine.
A tunnel in the pit needs repair, and putting a huge amount of tailings into Tapian Pit "is definitely not a proper thing to do," says Sali. "That has to be repaired before the haul back is done."
To begin with, the pit was never designed to hold waste. It is a 130-hectare wide and 320 meter-deep hole created in the process of mining copper near the summit of Mount Tapian. When that copper source was exhausted in 1991, the resulting hole was used as containment pond for waste - tailings and contaminated water - from Marcopper's then newly opened San Antonio mine.
It was from a defective drainage tunnel at the Tapian Pit that tailings and mine wastewater had rushed down the mountain in March 1996 and smothered the river system below. Today the pit's tunnel 310—numbered for its elevation in meters—had been found by Klohn Crippen engineers to be having problems. "With or without additional tailings," says Sali, "that tunnel needs to be decommissioned."
At present, the Tapian pit still holds some 20 million cubic meters of tailings and another eight million cubic meters of water. Klohn Crippen, whose report was commissioned by Marcopper and paid for by the Placer Dome subsidiary that had been created especially to deal with the Marinduque cleanup, said that the pit simply does not have a controlled outlet for water release. It noted,
"There is a high probability under current conditions for a rapid and uncontrolled release of pit waters due to failure of the 310 tunnel and/or failure or overtopping of the non-engineered fill along the northern pit rim. Failure of the non-engineered fill is of particular concern, as the rate of erosion will accelerate once the process begins, providing little advance warning. …"
The Klohn Crippen engineers said that first, the pit has to be "dewatered," or for the water content there to be brought down to an acceptable level. Then, a permanent spillway has to be built.
When the matter of dewatering was first brought to Marcopper's attention, the company said it did not have the P9 million it would cost to do it. Not surprisingly, Engineer Michael Cabalda of the DENR's Mines and Geosciences Bureau says that Marcopper had the same response when told of the need for a permanent spillway, which would mean anywhere from P75 million to P100 million.
Cabalda agrees with Edmundo Reyes Jr., Marinduque's representative to Congress, who believes it was the Klohn Crippen report that "alarmed" Placer Dome and hastened its departure from the country. "Instead of doing the responsible thing," Reyes says, "it tried to transfer the responsibility as fast as it could."
But not fast enough to avoid receiving a follow-up missive first from Klohn Crippen. Last August, Klohn Crippen wrote to reiterate that there was "virtual certainty" that the Maguilaguila dam, a Marcopper siltation dam that had earlier also burst in 1993, "will fail in the near term under current conditions." It added, "(This) is expected to result in significant downstream property damage and the potential for loss of life." It made a similar warning about the Tapian pit.
"Something has to be done now," says Sali. "The DENR, the provincial government, the office of the president, whichever office… they have to put in the initial money. We cannot compromise the safety of the communities."
To be sure, even DENR Secretary Heherson Alvarez was alarmed enough to issue a direct order last October for the "immediate" remediation of the faulty structures. The order was addressed to Marcopper Mining Corp., Placer Dome Inc., and Placer Dome Technical Services Inc. (PDTS), the subsidiary the Canadian mining firm set up in 1997 to take care of the Marinduque clean-up.
The following month, however, PDTS signed a new agreement with F Holdings Inc., the principal shareholder of Marcopper Mining Corp., leaving all cleanup and other obligations to F Holdings. Placer Dome President Jay Taylor also responded to Alvarez's order by asking why his company was included in the order. "Although I am deeply troubled by such issues," wrote Taylor, "the facilities identified in your letter are the responsibility of their owner and operator. PDI is not the owner or the operator of the Marcopper mine."
Placer Dome had divested itself of its interests in Marcopper in March 1997. Secretary Alvarez says, though, that Placer Dome's leaving was "less than proper" because the cleanup of the 1996 spill has not been completed. Yet he also admits that there are no laws that can force Placer to perform its "moral responsibility." Says Alvarez: "That's why we had to take this up with the highest authority in Canada."
Last January, both Alvarez and Reyes joined President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's state visit to Canada. Among the matters Arroyo discussed with the Canadian Prime Minister was Placer's responsibility for the disaster. Alvarez for his part spoke with his counterpart to explore the possibility of having an independent Canadian scientific group do a post-study spill to determine cleanup and rehabilitation options. Alvarez is awaiting the Canadian government's official response to the proposal.
But Teodoro Bernardino, owner of F Holdings and director of Marcopper, says the Philippine government should consider itself as among the culprits for the delay in the cleanup. He says, "The problem is not them (Placer). It's here—the government, the local government, the communities."
Bernardino also hints that the company left the country as it got fed up with Manila's "indecision" and the "posturing" of local politicians.
Bernardino says that the PDTS kept on getting mixed signals from the DENR on its proposed method of getting rid of the tailings: through the Submarine Tailings Disposal, which entails pumping the tailings into the sea through an underwater pipe. This method is banned in Placer Dome's home country, Canada, because it leads to the contamination of water resources, among other things. Nevertheless, the PDTS proposed to do it in Marinduque. The DENR turned down the plan outright in 1997, then issued a permit for it in January 2001. When Alvarez became DENR secretary, he cancelled that permit. In an interview he said that "it is not easy to allow such dumping into the sea."
In the meantime, Bernardino says, Marinduque politicos were pushing their own disposal ideas that the F Holdings head suggests were confusing. According to Bernardino, "Congressman Reyes's camp" wanted to use the tailings for road surfacing while "another camp, that of the Boac mayor" wanted the material to be used in a reclamation area. Bernardino says, "Look at the logic. If you can use it as surfacing material, is there anything wrong with putting it into the sea? Walang tao (There are no people)."
He says this led the PDTS to think that "these people were posturing, they want something else." But Bernardino says the PDTS "did not tell us" what that "something else" was.
In a statement released to Placer Dome employees two months ago, Taylor himself said, "We came to the conclusion that Placer's continued presence resulted in political posturing and decisions that were not merit-based. We concluded that Marcopper's principal shareholder, a local company closely connected to Marcopper, could more effectively address the issue than we could, simply because we could not get permission to conclude the river cleanup."
But Taylor pointed out that Placer had already spent US$70 million to respond to the 1996 spill. He said that "even though we had no legal obligation to do so, I believe that our actions have been both responsible and exemplary."
What he failed to say was that the then Placer Dome-controlled Marcopper had more to answer in Marinduque aside from the damage wrought by the 1996 spill. From 1975 to 1991, Marcopper dumped mine tailings into Calancan Bay day and night, eventually filling it with some 200 million tons of tailings. When health workers in 1999 began testing children in surrounding villages, they found high levels of heavy metals like lead in the youngsters' blood.
In 1993, the Maguilaguila dam also burst, inundating Mogpog town with mine waste. In April last year, 61 Mogpog residents filed a civil case for "continuing damages" to their livelihood caused by that accident.
Taylor also failed to explain why one of Canada's biggest diversified mining companies left a bankrupt firm like Marcopper to clean up a multibillion-peso mess that it had more than a hand in creating. Not to mention the millions of pesos more Marcopper would have to spend to repair the structures noted as needing such in the Klohn Crippen report.
Marcopper has not been in operations since March 1996. In an unaudited financial statement for 2000 submitted to the House committee on ecology early this year, Marcopper reported a deficit of more than P634.7 million. Bernardino himself is the first to admit to the company's financial doldrums, saying, "I don't even look at the numbers."
Asked how his company could afford the Marinduque cleanup, Bernardino pauses before saying, "Why don't they try us first? It's like asking a dump truck driver, do you have enough gasoline to make the trip to the dumpsite?...We're presenting ourselves, we want to haul (the tailings). We are going to prove that the problem is not Marcopper's determination to return the tailings to the Tapian pit."
He insists that the pit—and the dams singled out by the Klohn Crippen engineers—is not in need of any repair. He says that the Klohn Crippen report merely presented "possibilities." Bernardino even says that only something like "the dropping of an atomic bomb into the Tapian pit" would cause it to collapse.
He estimates that hauling the tailings back to the pit could be finished in less than three years "so long as no one tries to stop us." According to Bernardino, his company made it a point to hire local residents "since they don't have work." He describes what is going on now as a "bayanihan thing," with the residents of barangays Hinapulan and Binunga already managing to fill 100,000 bags, each containing 25 kilograms of tailings. The people are doing this with the simplest of tools.
Bernardino demurs from giving any details about how much this is costing Marcopper, saying only that the people would be paid "whatever is necessary to make them happy." He adds, "For us, it's just quid pro quo. We're saying if you want to clean it up, then ok. We didn't go there, saying, we'll hire you on a daily basis. It's not like that."
Bernardino says he would rather not wait for results of a proposed comprehensive study of the health and environmental impact of mining in Marinduque before trying to haul the tailings back into the Tapian pit. The Office of the President is advancing P20 million for that study, which the United States Geological Survey will conduct. The study, which will also determine the appropriate remedies for Marinduque, is estimated to take 18 months to complete.
Comments Bernardino: "Eh di lalong hindi matatapos (The more we'll never get anything done). You're going to study the situation all over again? In the 18 months that they'll take (to do the study), we could have already accomplished so much."
But Congressman Reyes says that more than the cleanup, the one thing Marcopper—and Placer Dome—should be aiming to do as soon as possible is to rehabilitate the structures identified by the Klohn Crippen report.
"This here," he says, "is a rare opportunity to save lives."