SC issues writ vs Placer Dome for Marcopper disaster

By Ina Reformina, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 09 2011 03:13 AM | Updated as of Mar 09 2011 08:07 PM

The Supreme Court issued a writ of kalikasan on Tuesday in favor of three residents of Marinduque province who filed a petition for the issuance of the writ against Placer Dome, Inc. and Barric Gold Corporation for the Marcopper mining incident in 1996.

The writ is a remedy available to persons, people's and non-government organizations, and public interest groups whose constitutional right to a balanced and healthy ecology is violated or threatened by private or public entities involving environmental damage that prejudice the life, health or property of inhabitants in two more more cities and provinces.

Eliza M. Hernandez, Mamerto M. Lanete and Godofredo L. Manoy, in their 60-page petition, said Placer Dome should be held liable for expelling some 2 million cubic meters of toxic industrial waste into the Boac river when a drainage plug holding toxic mining waste from its operations ruptured.

Placer Dome is the parent corporation of Marcopper Mining Company, owning 39.9% of the shares in Marcopper. From 1964 to 1997, it operated and managed mining operations in Marinduque.

Barrick Gold Corporation is a foreign corporation that merged with Placer Dome in May 2006.

Binding contract with FVR

Petitioners, represented by their counsel, Fr. Joaquin Bernas, alleged that Placer Dome, despite a "binding contract" with no less than former President Fidel Ramos, failed to rehabilitate the waters of Marinduque, Quezon, Batangas, and Romblon.

The petition quoted a letter dated April 11, 1996 of then Placer Dome President and chief executive officer John Wilson to Ramos which stated the mining firm's commitment to "rehabilitate all areas impacted by the tailing flow" and engage in a program "which will result in the mitigation of the environmental impact."

"Fifteen years from the mining disaster, the industrial waste continues to sit on the rivers and environs of Marinduque, likewise potentially if not actually, spreading and contaminating the rivers and streams of neighboring areas of Mindoro, Quezon, Batangas and Romblon," the petition read.

Petitioners expressed dismay at how five lawsuits against Marcopper failed to prosper.

"...all of these cases are mired in the courts. After 15 years of litigation, none of them have (sic) even reached the trial stage," the petition read.

Following the mining accident, Placer Dome divested its shares in Marcopper, which eventually went bankrupt.

Mine tailings disaster

The petition also cited the dumping of mine tailings by Marcopper into Calancan Bay wherein petitioners alleged that "in a period of sixteen (16) years, approximately two hundred (200) million tons of mine tailings was (sic) deposited at the sea surface level of Calancan Bay."

"In 1997, medical professionals from the Department of Health and the University of the Philippines conducted medical tests on the people living in close proximity to Calancan Bay. of the one hundred eight (108) residents tested, twenty-two (22) children were found to have elevated lead and mercury content in their blood," the petition read.

"The health studies were conducted within the same year and the results showed that all the fifty-nine (59) children tested have unacceptable lead contents in their blood. Twenty-five (25) of these children have blood cyanide in their system," the petition read.

Grounds for writ of kalikasan

Thus, the petition cited the following grounds as basis for the issuance of a writ of kalikasan:

  • violation of the constitutional rights of petitioners to a healthful and balanced ecology is in the nature of a continuing offense;
  • the act of polluting the rivers and bays of Marinduque did not end with the dumping of pollutants but merely launched and triggered the natural and continuing capacity of these pollutants to do damage;
  • new damage is caused by the "natural activity" of Marcopper's pollutants released by Placer Dome to neighboring bodies of water that serve as fishing grounds for residents of Marinduque, Batangas, Quezon and Romblon; and,
  • daily, continuing damage is caused by these pollutants as a "natural continuation" of the dumping activities.

"While Placer Dome continues to mine internationally and earn vast wealth, the residents are left to contend with the toxic mining waste that remains behind. This toxic industrial waste continues to stay in their rivers, and seas, killing fishes and other marine life, choking the coral reefs, and polluting their food sources," the petition read.

According to the Rules of Procedure of the Supreme Court for environmental cases, Placer Dome has only 10 days to file a verified return upon receipt of the writ of kalikasan.

The return shall contain Placer Dome's defenses in the form of witnesses' affidavits, documentary evidence, scientific or expert studies, and if possible, object evidence.

The high court may then call for a preliminary conference and execute its judgment on the petition within 60 days from the time the petition is submitted for decision.

Reliefs under writ of kalikasan

The reliefs which may be granted under the writ are:

(a)    directing respondent to permanently cease and desist from committing acts or neglecting the performance of a duty in violation of environmental laws resulting in environmental destruction or damage;
(b) directing the respondent public official, government agency, private person or entity to protect, preserve, rehabilitate or restore the environment;
(c) directing the respondent public official, government agency, private person or entity to monitor strict compliance with the decision and orders of the court;
(d) directing the respondent public official, government agency, or private person or entity to make periodic reports on the execution of the final judgment; and,
(e)    such other reliefs which relate to the right of the people to a balanced and healthful ecology or to the protection, preservation, rehabilitation or restoration of the environment, except the award of damages to individual petitioners.

This petition involving Placer Dome/Marcopper is the second case elevated to the high court since the court's Rules of Procedure for Environmental Cases took effect on April 29, 2010, the first being the petition of residents of West Tower Condominium, Makati against First Philippine Industrial Corporation (fpic) for the Makati oil leak incident.