MANILA (UPDATED) - An inter-agency Cabinet body said Tuesday majority of its members voted to recommend the lifting of the ban on open-pit mining.
The Mining Industry Coordinating Council (MICC) also agreed that the Mines and Geosciences Bureau should "take a close look and take appropriate action" on the possible expansion of 24 areas covered by Mineral Production Sharing Agreements.
Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu, who co-chaired the council with Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez, said he will follow the recommendation and present it at a Cabinet meeting in the first week of November.
Asked whether the ban will likely be lifted before the end of the year, Cimatu said: "Hopefully."
"We will strengthen the regulatory environment surrounding the implementation of open-pit mining," he told reporters.
Miners praised the panel's recommendation, saying it is a positive step for the industry.
"Open-pit mining is an accepted method worldwide to extract shallow mineral deposits and a lot of our minerals are exactly that," Ronald Recidoro, executive director of the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines, told Reuters by phone.
"The challenge is for it to be done safely and the environment is protected during and after the mining is accomplished."
The MICC's decision however drew sharp rebuke from former Environment Secretary Gina Lopez, who ordered the open-pit ban.
In a statement on Tuesday, Lopez called the council's recommendation "disgusting" and challenged miners' claims that open-pit mines can be rehabilitated.
"All those open pits are near rivers and streams and all of them hit water tables. In more than a hundred years we don't even have ONE rehabilitated open pit," Lopez said.
Lopez also said open-pit mines pose "very high risks in tropical and archipelagic countries like the Philippines" where strong typhoons are normal.
President Rodrigo Duterte said last month he supported the open-pit mining ban given the environmental damage it causes though he would give mining firms time to find other ways to extract minerals.
Lifting the ban would allow the development of some big-ticket mining projects including the $5.9 billion Tampakan copper and gold mine in South Cotabato.
The Tampakan project was halted after South Cotabato local government banned open-pit mining in 2010, prompting operator Glencore Plc to quit the project in 2015.
Lopez had said the project would cover an area the size of 700 soccer fields in what otherwise would be agricultural land.
Removing the ban would may also lead to the resumption of development of the $1.2 billion Silangan copper and gold mine, also in Mindanao, by Philex Mining Corp. -- with a report from Reuters