Living through dusts of coal in Tondo

Demerie Dangla, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 29 2016 05:41 AM | Updated as of Mar 29 2016 04:20 PM

Six-year-old Kenneth would usually get up from bed earlier than his mother when going to school.

Enthusiastic about school that is only walking distance from their home, Kenneth would even be the one to wake up his mother.

Naughty but matured, this was how Jocelyn Villaver, 36, described her second eldest son, Kenneth.

Kenneth, along with other kids, would usually be seen running in the narrow streets of Barangay 105, Happyland in Tondo, Manila, playing and unmindful of the crowd.

But last year, in October, Kenneth was diagnosed with severe malnutrition and disseminated tuberculosis. The infection had spread from his lungs to other parts of his body that led to the deterioration of his health.

Jocelyn’s face was blank, sometimes smiling, as she recalled memories of her son, Kenneth. She blames the presence of the coal stockpile just next to their community to have worsened the health of his son.

“Hindi mo mapipigilan ‘yung hangin eh... Kung siguro talagang saradong-sarado, hindi talaga papasok, pero kung ganyan lang e may butas-butas, papasok din talaga,” Villaver said while pointing at the holes on the walls of her house.

Jocelyn holds photos of Kenneth before and after he was diagnosed with Tuberculosis. Demerie Dangla, ABS-CBN News

But even before the coal stockpile, happy-go-lucky Kenneth, even at a young age, would also have to face problems that challenge their survival.

There were times when Kenneth and his three other siblings have almost nothing to eat. Sometimes, rice and soy sauce would do for them, Jocelyn said. Kenneth would even suggest to his mother to sell some of their old stuff and use the money to buy food, as re-selling became a source of income of Villaver before.

Even the earnings of Jocelyn’s husband are not enough for a living. Her husband works as a carpenter, and whose job is never stable.

Happyland, Barangay 105, in Tondo is home to 3,000 families living in poverty. According to the latest data from Philippine Statistics Authority, poverty incidence in the country rose by 1.2% to 25.8% in the first semester of 2014 from 24.6% in the first half of 2013. Demerie Dangla, ABS-CBN News

Yet, these challenges did not keep Kenneth from getting good grades in school. This was why his teachers were saddened when his mother told them that Kenneth would stop schooling for a while because he had to undergo medical treatment.

Kenneth had to wear oxygen mask and eat through a tube upon the advice of doctor. The day after they returned home from the hospital, on January 27, Kenneth, now frail, again told to his mother that he can’t breathe properly.

“Nu’ng mga 10 a.m., ‘yun na, hirap na siyang huminga. Tinakbo ko pa nga ‘yun sa hospital, wala na, nasa daan kami, dead on arrival na siya,” Villaver recalled.

Six-year-old Kenneth was one of the casualties of the presence of coal stockpile next to a community that is home to 3,000 families, affecting their health, especially children.

Jocelyn Villaver with her three other children. Demerie Dangla, ABS-CBN News

WHEN IT STARTED

In 2014, Rock Energy International Corporation started piling coal dusts in a 1.5 hectare land that used to be a plantation of various crops, according to residents.

But even before the coal stockpile, surviving has not been always easy for the residents of Happyland – children are malnourished, and some scavenge garbage – according to Rose Binag, general secretary of progressive women’s group, Gabriela.

“Nu’ng dumating ‘yung tambak ng carbon, lalong naging napakahirap (ang buhay nila)… Kasi dumagdag sa pasanin nila ‘yung gastusin ng pagpapagamot ng kanilang mga anak,” Binag said.

“Gustong-gusto rin namin talaga na mawala ang salot, perwisyo dito sa amin, lalong-lalo na na ako’y dito rin nakatira, kasama po ako na naapektuhan sa dinudulot ng carbon na ‘yan,” Dan Aliman, a barangay official, also shared his sentiments.

The remaining coal stockpile as seen from a high wall. The coal dusts are lesser in amount now as Rock Energy has been removing them by batch for months already. Demerie Dangla, ABS-CBN News

The coal dusts were used as fuels to large companies, like a company of cement. However, these coal dusts also contain chemicals that when absorbed into the lungs can cause various respiratory diseases to residents.

In June 2015, a closure order was issued by the local government of Manila. The Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources also suspended the Economic Compliance Certificate of Rock Energy because it exceeded the storage limit of their stockpile to more than 3,000 metric tons. It also issued a cease and desist order for the same reason.

However, on October 20, 2015, the EMB overturned the cease and desist order because of actions taken by Rock Energy, such as placing nets and dust controllers. They also upgraded their walls. However, these were not enough. The coal dusts can still reach the homes of residents living beside it.

ANIMALS, RESIDENTS AFFECTED

Liliosa Macabit, 50, said she has been coughing for a long time. A previous x-ray of hers showed she has pulmonary infection due to unclean air.

Macabit has been living in Happyland for 25 years already. She said she used to benefit from the plantation where various crops are planted, such as cassava, taro, and vegetables. Now, only coal dusts are there.

Liliosa Macabit in her home. Demerie Dangla, ABS-CBN News

The coal dust had also caused some of her pigs to die, which serves as her livelihood, resulting for one of her children to stop schooling.

“'Yung sampu kong baboy, apat na lang yung natira. Kasi karamihan talaga sa mga sakit, ubo, sipon, parang hinihika (‘yung mga baboy)… Ang laking sira talaga sa budget, ‘yung isa kong anak huminto dahil wala nang pambayad dahil namamatay na 'yung mga baboy,” Macabit said.

She said the income of her husband, who works as a welder in the harbor, is only enough to put food on their table.

Macabit is one of the residents hoping that the coal dust stockpile will be totally pulled out from their community. “Oo syempre, kasi yan ang nakakasira sa amin dito eh. Tsaka karamihan dito may TB na,” she claimed.

DEVELOPMENTS

The residents of Happyland have staged several demonstrations from time to time to complain the stockpile of coal dusts of Rock Energy.

But according to Engineer Dennis Conejos, pollution control officer of Rock Energy, they do not operate any longer. Instead, they are only removing the remaining coal dusts from the stockpile.

On February 9, 2016, the EMB issued once again a cease and desist order to Rock Energy because it failed to meet the requirements set by the EMB.

The demonstrations of residents also pressured the Manila City Hall to give Rock Energy only two months to finish the removal of coal dusts.

“Nagtagumpay po ito at agaran din naman ang ating city hall na isinara po yung stockpile… Pinayagan po natin na i-haul nila yung kanilang mga coal pero naglaan po tayo ng dalawang tanod na magbabantay sa kanila dyan para po walang makapasok na coal,”Aliman said, referring to their unity march last February 28.

Residents hold a unity march to call for the complete pull-out of coal stockpile next to their community. Photo by Kathy Yamzon

Will the Rock Energy keep their words and follow the two-month deadline which falls on April 23?

Binag said they will be looking out for it and make sure it will be removed completely. However, she said that even if they successfully remove the stockpile, it doesn’t mean that the fight should stop there, considering the menace it has caused to residents.

Two girls take a bath outside their homes. Children with low immunity are easily affected by the health hazards caused by coal dusts. Demerie Dangla, ABS-CBN News

“Yung pagpu-pull out, ito ay babantayan natin hanggang tuluyan nang walang mag-operate… hindi lang sapat na mapalayas natin yung tambak ng carbon, kundi managot lahat ng sangkot, lahat ng pumayag para mag-operate po yung Rock Energy sa pinsalang idinulot nila sa kalusugan at kalikasan natin,” Binag explained. -- with report from TV Patrol