Act of God or act of man? DENR probes Surigao del Sur calamity

Erwin M. Mascariñas

Posted at Mar 10 2018 02:45 PM | Updated as of Mar 11 2018 01:53 PM

A close-up of the areas at the Sipangpang mine site shows damaged areas caused by the flow of water and damaged ponds with parts of its walls broken as well as large trees along the length of the entire mining site taken on February 26.

Erwin Mascarinas, ABS-CBN News

Aerial photo taken on February 22 shows that the mining site at Sitio Sipangpang, Barangay Cabangahan in Cantilan drains directly to Barangay Cabas-an and towards Barangay Parang that was severely flooded in the morning of February 13.

Erwin Mascarinas, ABS-CBN News

An aerial photo of the mining site in Sitio Pili, Barangay Panikian, Carrascal town shows large cracks and marks of heavy water flow as well as damaged silting ponds and dikes taken on February 22.

Erwin Mascarinas, ABS-CBN News

A resident walks on top of logs left after the onslaught of tropical storm Basyang in Purok 3, Barangay Cabas-an, Cantilan, Surigao del Sur on February 16, 2017.

Erwin Mascarinas, ABS-CBN News

A family looks out from their house damaged by large logs that devastated their community in Purok 3, Barangay Cabas-an, Cantilan, Surigao del Sur after the onslaught of Tropical Storm Basyang, February 16, 2017.

Erwin Mascarinas, ABS-CBN News

Logs left in Purok 3, Barangay Cabas-an, Cantilan, Surigao del Sur on February 16, 2017 after the onslaught of Tropical Storm Basyang.

Erwin Mascarinas, ABS-CBN News

Logs left in Purok 3, Barangay Cabas-an, Cantilan, Surigao del Sur on February 16, 2017 after the onslaught of Tropical Storm Basyang.

Erwin Mascarinas, ABS-CBN News

MADRID, Surigao del Sur – The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), together with civil society organizations, will investigate the role of mining in aggravating the effects of the
floods brought by rains during the height of Tropical Storm Basyang in the towns of Cantilan and Carrascal here. 

Five people were reported killed, more than 100 houses were damaged, and over P7-million worth of crops and livestock were lost in the February disaster. 

The order from DENR came after former Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) President Bishop Nereo Odchimar of the diocese of Tandag, Surigao del Sur issued a pastoral letter on February 17 calling for an immediate and independent investigation into the flooding, particularly in much-affected villages in Cantilan and Carrascal. 

In the memorandum signed March 1 by Environment Undersecretary Ernesto Adobo Jr. through the authority of Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu, the DENR ordered an action planning workshop and a multi-sectoral ocular site inspection to address the issues and concerns arising from the deaths and destruction that occurred during the onslaught of Tropical Storm Basyang on February 13. 

Michelle Angelica D. Go, DENR Assistant Secretary for field operations in Mindanao, pointed out that the order is a result of the bishops' pastoral letter as well as images and reports coming from different sectors in the area. 

“The order is a result of the concerns raised by the pastoral letter urging the DENR officials to work with civil society groups and other organizations and organize a multi-stakeholder, multi-disciplinary team to look into the extent of logging activities in the area and how severely these had affected the environment, which include the activities of mining companies, particularly the cutting of trees in their concession areas," Go said. 

"We are very much concerned that unless a thorough investigation will be made, there will be injustice among those who survived the disaster,” she said.

Go said “a management conference or mancom of the DENR offices, including the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) and Environmental Management Bureau (EMB), must be held, where the result of the investigation of several DENR offices will be presented and discussed." 

She said she would personally meet and supervise the meeting as well as the conduct of an ocular inspection in the next few days. 

ALLEGED BASELESS AND UNFOUNDED ACCUSATIONS

In response to the pastoral letter of the bishop of Tandag, the provincial government of Surigao del Sur immediately released a statement dismissing several of the points it raised.

“It is unfortunate, however, that instead of helping and comforting the victims as what a good Christian must do in times like this, the church chose to amplify and speculate on the baseless and
unfounded accusation bereft of any solid or factual data to back up such claims,” the office of Surigao del Sur Governor Vicente Pimentel Jr. said. 

The provincial government pointed out that the affected barangays in Carrascal and Cantilan were far from the mining areas, citing Google Earth as a reference to back up its claim. 

It also pointed out that both areas were prone to landslides asnd flooding, as delineated by the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) in their geo-hazard map. 

It added that the flooding was due to the 239-mm rainfall brought by Tropical Storm Basyang in a span of 7 hours, which exceeded river channel capacity.

The provincial government also stressed that all of the siltation ponds are intact and solid to this day. 

RAIN NOT EXTREME

Engineer Jojene Santillan of the Caraga Center for Geo-Informatics for the Systematic Assessment of Flood Effects and Risks (Geo-SAFER), an office linked to the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), explained that the flood that hit Cantilan town was not the result of rainfall at the height of the storm but was aggravated by other factors.

“If we check our data and look closely at the history of rainfall in both Surigao del Sur and Surigao del Norte, the amount of rainfall that fell during Basyang was not even considered extreme if you try to compare this to Ondoy. If we put the amount of rainfall [and] even if we elevate it to around 300 mm, it will only flood certain areas near the river and does not even get close to what we saw on the video and photos that hit Cantilan," said Santillan. 

Santillan, an expert on rainfall runoff modeling, watershed hydrology, geographic information system, hydrologic and water resource modeling and simulation, demonstrated several simulation models of the amount of rainfall that hit Cantilan. 

“Every year, that same amount of rainfall hits parts of Caraga Region, and that is not supposed to be that devastating. The simulation and rainfall flood modeling is based on normal circumstances, but factors like the debris and all the trees shown on the photos as well as areas where those debris might have accumulated would be able to contribute largely to the disaster that happened. It would be great if there would be a closer inspection and investigation into the incident,” said Santillan. 

Forester Benjie Lasam, a watershed expert and environmental consultant, pointed out that aerial photos of the mining sites in Sitio Pili, Barangay Panikian in Carrascal as well as in Sitio Sipangpang, Barangay Cabangahan in Cantilan show massive flooding and water movement in the mining area as well as broken and damaged siltation ponds and dikes. 

“If you check the photos, there is a clear engineering failure if majority of the dikes and ponds gave in to the pressure and certain portions of it collapsed. We can see in the photos the massive water movement from the top of the mining site towards the ponds where there are evidence of damage and collapse along the walls. You can see the direction of the water movement, you can see the color of the soil, as well as you
can see on the photos the trees that are trapped along the edges of other trees,” said Lasam. 

“I believe that this is a new mining site as evidenced by the massive number of trees along the entire mining site. If these aerial photos were taken a few days after the typhoon, there should be evidence of several areas that have water, but if you check the top portion, it is dry and the only areas with water are those that have not completely drained from the broken siltation ponds. The loose soil from the mining site, rain water flooding 
the area, then added the cut trees, these formed the catastrophic effect of Basyang,” he explained. 

“Water will always find a way. Thus, in this situation, you can see the signs that water moves from different parts within the entire length of the mining site,” he added. 

Lasam said a panel of scientific experts should look closely into what happened in the affected areas and figure out how to avert future disasters. 

LANDSLIDES AND ALLEGED EXPLORATION DRILLING

Several residents in Barangay Babuyan, who requested not to be named, said they had received reports of alleged drilling explorations around the area where the landslides happened. 

“The investigation should look into these alleged claims by the residents, these are very legitimate claims that should be taken into consideration. If indeed that there are on-going drilling operations, these would link to displacement of a certain area, and those holes where they have drilled would eventually be filled with water," Lasam said. 

"These can significantly alter the soil composition between the rock formations. If we look into the soil profile along the mountain's edge, the soil is nestled above the rock, so anything that would alter this would cause and trigger adverse reactions. Hopefully, they will also look into these and not just automatically conclude without proper thorough scientific checking and analysis,” said Lasam. 

Lasam added that to automatically claim that the incident was caused only by a landslide lacks merit unless it is properly scrutinized. 

“There are several triggering mechanisms that should be investigated before concluding that it was just an ordinary landslide and that it was just caused by the rains. Example: let's look into the data [and see] if they had core sampling, the soil profile, how lose is the area or the part where the soil is nestled on top of a rock formation along the mountain, who are checking the soil sample, the mud sample in the affected communities
and then compare to where the landslide took place and the nearby areas,” he said. 

“The mining operation, even if it is about 2 to 3 kilometers away, could still be a major contributing factor in the mudslide and flashflood, so this should be scientifically investigated and not just rushed into conclusion,” Lasam added. 

ADDRESSING 'ENVIRONMENTAL CRIMES' IN MINDANAO

Officials called for an investigation of such "environmental crimes." 

“I asked all the CENROs [City Environment and Natural Resources Offices] to give me a list and profile of the areas of concern for illegal logging and destructive mining. There are 82 illegal logging areas of concern and 42 illegal and destructive mining areas of concern in Mindanao. I think this data is incomplete and can be completed with the help of stakeholders and concerned citizens,” said Go. 
 
The environment chief's memorandum states that a road map should be crafted prioritizing the issues of illegal logging, illegal and destructive mining, and environmental pollution. 

“The road map also emphasized the non-negotiable policy on the protection of the environment that must be made a priority ahead of mining and all other activities that adversely effect the environment,” the DENR's October 2017 memo says. 

On March 9, personnel from the DENR central office visited Cantilan to talk with residents in affected communities as well as to check on the status of the investigation of local environment offices.