Philex tailings leak threatens PH economy

By Lito U. Gagni, BusinessMirror

Posted at Sep 19 2012 07:34 AM | Updated as of Sep 19 2012 07:28 PM

MANILA, Philippines - The toxic waste that Philex Mining Corp., the country’s top mining firm, has dumped into the Balog Creek in Benguet and the Agno River in Pangasinan appears to be starting to wreak havoc on the thriving bangus (milkfish) industry in Pangasinan, which earns about P400 million a year in sales and at least $1 million in exports.

Fears have been expressed that if not stopped immediately, the tailings-pond leak at Philex’s Padcal Mines could lead to an environmental nightmare of catastrophic proportions and seriously threaten the country’s economy.

These were the initial assessments of Gina Lopez, top honcho of ABS-CBN Foundation and head of an environmental group seeking to stop mining operations of the mining firm operated by businessman Manuel V. Pangilinan. Lopez said the toxic waste from the leak in Philex’s Padcal tailings pond in Tuba, Benquet, that has contaminated the Balog Creek and the Agno River now threatens the waters of San Roque Dam and the Lingayen Gulf, the bangus industry’s all-important water source.

Last week Environment Secretary Ramon J.P. Paje revealed that the leak had created a 30-hectare crater in the 90-hectare Tailings Pond No. 3 of Padcal Mines. Paje told reporters that Philex faces a P1-billion fine and this could go up, depending on the latest survey to be made by the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The volume of wastewater released from the tailings pond could easily have doubled or tripled because of the failure of Philex to plug the leak since it was first discovered on August 1, he said. Philex is also facing a P200,000-per-day fine for violation of the Clean Water Act, he added.

Paje also confirmed then that the Balog Creek and the Agno River had been contaminated, although he said
at the time that San Roque Dam’s water was not. He said the contamination or discoloration from the creek that leads of Agno then to the dam becomes less severe from the point of origin.

But Lopez, who has been advocating tourism in place of mining, said the Padcal Mines leak, is fast becoming the worst-ever to hit the country and is threatening the Lingayen Gulf. The volume of the Padcal leak is already said to be more than that which hit the Marcopper mines many years ago in Marinduque that led to the province’s becoming an “economic wasteland.”

Lopez said the volume of the Padcal tailings dump spillage has reached 5 million tons; that of the Marcopper case was only 1.6 million tons but it affected the livelihood of thousands of Marinduquenos.

“It’s really bad, “ Lopez said as she described as “horror of horrors” the scenario that would result if the tailings leakage eventually contaminates the entire Lingayen Gulf that nurtures the country’s bangus industry.

Economic facts that the Department of Trade and Industry compiled for Pangasinan’s bangus industry reveal that bangus products are sold in Metro Manila, Regions 1, 2,3, CAR and Cebu with institutional buyers, such as Chowking, SM, Jollibee, PAL, Makati Medical Center.

In the export market, countries penetrated include the US (Hawaii and West Coast), Asia (Macau, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Australia), Middle East (the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia) and Europe (Sweden, the UK and Switzerland. Bangus is processed as “boneless,” marinated, tinapa, lumpia, embutido, relyeno, nuggets and tocino.

Environmentalists believe Philex has not been as forthright about the tailings-dump leak. A week after saying the leak had been contained, the dumping of toxic waste into the Balog Creek continued, they said.

Based on the disclosure statement of Philex to the Philippine Stock Exchange, the company said it has been struggling to contain the leak. In September, the company reported another discharge on August 30. “We confirm that this discharge has been the fourth reported since the first incident that occurred on August 1,” it added.

And yet, days into the leak, Philex President and COO Eulalio Austin was reported on the TV5 web site portal that “[d]espite the heavy rains, thick fog and strong gusty winds in the area, our team successfully removed concrete stopboards at the penstock area of Tailings Pond No. 3,” Austin said. “Since the mine continues to be closed, no further tailings are added to the pond,” he was quoted as having said.

Aside from the economic repercussions of the Philex waste discharge, another catastrophe is awaiting the Philex workers, which according to the Kilusang Mayo Uno, are experiencing itchy sensations, exposed as they had been while working to plug the leak.