From paradise to perdition: Tale of a sanitary landfill in Bulacan gone wrong

Gerry Lirio, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Oct 18 2019 03:48 PM | Updated as of Oct 18 2019 04:30 PM

One late night in August 2017, Gloria Cardona, barangay captain of Barangay Paradise III in San Jose del Monte City in Bulacan, and her husband, woke up to a loud explosion in their neighborhood. Hearts pounding, the couple went out to the streets and smelled what seemed like a mixture of burning gas and human wastes, though until then they couldn’t exactly figure it out.

But they were certain with one thing: It was something extremely malodorous.
Fearing for their health and safety, Cardona and some other barangay leaders looked around and found out that the explosion, by the fire and fumes it created, took place at the nearby sanitary landfill and that it had triggered a landslide of all sorts of trash, ranging from kitchen to hospital wastes, from worn-out shoes and clothes to broken furniture, and from plastics to drums of oil and other flammable chemicals, into the nearby Istrabiyal River, one of the water systems running within Bulacan, from San Jose del Monte to Sta. Maria town. The river system goes all the way to Marilao town and to the cities of Meycauayan and Valenzuela and up to Manila Bay.

From paradise to perdition: Tale of a sanitary landfill in Bulacan gone wrong 1
Oil and other wastes pollute the Istrabiyal River, which runs from San Jose del Monte to Sta. Maria town in Bulacan. Courtesy of the Balitang SJDM Facebook

By mid-morning, Cardona had gathered the leaders and residents of Barangay Paradise and nearby Isidro, San Roque and Bamban villages to exchange information and, days later, agreed to file a complaint with the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) against officials of Wacuman Incorporated, or Waste Custodian Management, a local firm run by the family of former Norzagaray Mayor Feliciano Legaspi Sr. for alleged violations of Republic Act 9003, which prohibits “littering, throwing, dumping of waste matters in public places such as roads, parks, and establishments.” Or to put it simply, for causing the spread of trash outside the landfill and into the Istrabiyal and Sta. Maria rivers.

Wacuman Inc. had called the garbage explosion an accident, as a result of force majeure, but told DENR in a letter that it was doing its best to rehabilitate the damaged area.

One case after another

The complaint illustrated in detail the aftermath of the explosion, complete with pictures of trash at the Istrabiyal River. It contained affidavits executed by residents dramatizing various tales of garbage woes, ranging from allegations of environmental degradation, including water and air pollution, road destruction, the cutting of trees, death of a carabao run over by a garbage truck, and possible impact to their health, including loss of sleep and peace of mind, since the landfill became fully operational.

The filing came so quick, as if they had long been waiting for it, and triggered a series of other complaints and counter-complaints filed one after the other, including cases of grave threats against each other. One other case was a criminal complaint filed with the Office of the Prosecutor in San Jose del Monte.

As of today, their fears, as well as their anger, have not waned, like an old wound that refuses to heal. On September 2, the residents filed another complaint, this time hoping that the environment official would take a closer look.

More violations

“[We filed] Because we have long been suffering from this unsanitary landfill,” Cardona’s husband Rey told ABS-CBN News in an interview late August. “It wasn’t the first time.”

Sought for comment, San Jose Del Monte Mayor Arthur Robes said in a statement emailed to ABS-CBN News: “We are constantly monitoring the activities of Wacuman to ensure that no violations are committed. Our priority is the health and overall well-being of the residents near and around the facility.” Mayor Alfredo DG. Germar of Norzagaray was not available for comment.

In their September 2 complaint, residents asked the DENR to issue a cease and desist order against the landfill for more violations, the latest of which is on its design, covered by Republic Act 2002, otherwise known as the Philippine Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000, and on its location, covered by Presidential Decree 1152, which prohibits landfills along the banks of rivers and streams, and a DENR administrative order issued in 1998.
Wacuman Inc. had failed to secure an approval from the Sangguniang Bayan that would confirm a compliance with the pertinent siting, design criteria, and standards deemed necessary to proceed with its operations. The landfill is not included in the land use plans of both San Jose Del Monte and Norzagaray, the complaint said.

Under the two laws and local ordinances, the complaint said a landfill shall be a minimum 50 meters away from any perennial stream, lake or river. The site shall be located in an area where the landfill operation will not detrimentally affect environmentally sensitive resources such as aquifers, groundwater reservoir or watershed area. The DENR’s Administrative Order No. 50 of 1998 imposed a similar limitation on landfills.

Wacuman Inc. officials had also been slapped with alleged violations of Presidential Decree No 1586, also known as the Environmental Impact Assessment System; Republic Act 6969, or the Toxic Substances and Hazardous and Nuclear Waste Control Act; and of other city ordinances (CO), including CO No. 2017-017-02, with the complainants seeking corresponding criminal penalty.

Dream dump

Since December 2007, Wacuman Inc. has been at the helm of the landfill at the mountainous property spreading over from Barangay Paradise III in San Jose del Monte to Sitio Tiakad, Barangay San Mateo in Norzagaray. It took over from a team of environmental and civil engineers from the University of the Philippines in Los Baños, led by environment engineer Mylene Palaypayon and her assistant, civil engineer Marloe Sundo.

It received all kinds of trash from at least 17 towns and cities in Bulacan and nearby provinces. Among these were hospital and animal wastes, residents said in their affidavits.

When it began, it was a dream dump, patterned after the famous clean and green sanitary landfills in Canada where one can reportedly stand on top of the heap without fear; garbage collectors and segregators, and even trucks and drivers were envisioned to arrive in bright, color-coded uniforms. Blue shirts for those who wanted to get plastic wastes, red for those interested in paper, and green for those looking for broken glass, metals, wiring and other trash.

“It would be a waste memorial park, a showcase of waste handling in the country,” the project proponent, chemical engineer Ramon Angelo, told this newsman in July 2006. “It would be the best ever for a landfill project for its sheer size and strategic location.”

According to the team leader, environment engineer Palaypayon, the project should have been “a very good example of a facility for proper solid waste management” in the country, with all its required components. “It would cover all the project’s workflow--sanitary landfill, materials recovery facility, dumping and tipping pads, compost-fertilizer pit and leachate ponds—as well as access road, drainage facility, administration building, canteen, water supply system and workers’ quarters,” she told this newsman in the July 2006 interview.

Garbage segregators were to wear hard hats, rubber boots, gas masks, goggles and gloves, aside from color-coded uniforms. Supervisors and security people would wear yellow uniforms, while engineers and executives would be in white.

Unlike an ordinary dump, the San Jose del Monte-Norzagaray landfill would be treated with enzymes to prevent pests and foul smell and be covered with a layer of soil after treating every three to four meters of garbage. Before receiving waste, the operators would spread composite soil liner over the landfill to protect the watershed.

Once upon a mining site

Angelo discovered the site while looking for a “mine-out” or a source of soil for areas left by cement and mining companies in Norzagaray. It is accessible not only to Bulacan communities but also to northern Metro Manila and some towns of Rizal. It is 21.5 kilometers (km) from Commonwealth Road in Quezon City and 9 km from the Novaliches-Norzagaray national road in Barangay Igay, San Jose del Monte City in Bulacan. The area was once considered a rustic place, with its pristine scenery, good water quality, ambient air, and an ecologically sound environment.

But he abandoned the plan to dig soil for mining sites after the owners, the heirs of businessman Federico de Leon, said they wanted instead to develop the rugged terrain into a residential-commercial area and, until later when they realized it was well-suited for a sanitary landfill, but only on a 5-year lease agreement starting in March 2015.

Inverted pyramid

Unlike other existing dumps and landfills that form “pyramid-type” mountain after several years of operation, the landfill, which is on a mountaintop 80 meters above sea level (masl), is an inverted pyramid with an estimated depth of 60 meters.

“We will never have a landslide here, the kind Payatas had experienced years ago where so many people were buried alive,” Angelo said.

It will take at least 10 years to fill up the 18.8-hectare (ha.) landfill that was facing development, and about 20 years for the entire 148-ha. property.

Angelo said the project, conceptualized in 2006, was in line with the government’s policy to adopt a systematic, comprehensive and sound ecological solid waste management program under Republic Act No. 9003, or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000, to ensure public health and protection of the environment.

Enter UP experts

He later commissioned a former DENR official to draft a proposal for a landfill, but the DENR rejected it for its infirmities. The DENR only granted an environmental clearance certificate after a second group--the UPLB team led by Palaypayon and Sundo--submitted a more comprehensive concept design. Both Palaypayon and Sundo taught at UPLB and are experienced in environmental engineering, primarily on landfill design.

Thus, the San Jose del Monte-Norzaragay sanitary landfill was born. Angelo was named company president.

Politics of garbage

Then-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo may have been so impressed with the plan designed by the UP team of engineers that in October 2008, at the request of some Bulacan officials, she issued Proclamation No. 1655 declaring the sanitary landfill as “an alternative disposal site for the proper disposal of waste from the local government units and the private sector units in Bulacan, Metro Manila and nearby areas” subject to the provisions of R.A. 9003.

“We are working as a team of different technical expertise, one is working on transportation engineering and surveying, one is working on drainage engineering, one on geotechnical engineering, and I am into environmental engineering,” Palaypayon said in a July 2006 interview.

“We are composed of relatively young engineers. But we have our own capacities to technically address the needs of the project,” she said.
It came with a business permit issued by then Norzagaray Mayor Feliciano Legaspi Sr.. Wacuman Inc. was to lease the property from De Leon’s heirs for 15 years until March 2020, with the following lease rates: P1,500 per hectare from March 2006 to March 2010; P2,500 per hectare from March 2010 to March 2015; and, P3,500 per hectare from March 2015 to March 2020, according to documents obtained by ABS-CBN News.

Family business

In January 2014, the Legaspis bought the 19-ha. property from the De Leons for P400,000, according to documents. The sale was a voluntary deal forged between the two parties, the documents showed.

Feliciano’s son, Legaspi Jr., was soon elected Wacuman Inc.'s corporate secretary, according to documents obtained by ABS-CBN News.

Another son, former Norzagaray Vice Mayor Arthur Legaspi, was elected Wacuman Inc.'s treasurer and subsequently, company vice president and chief operating officer, and much later, company president. Wacuman Inc.'s chairman and chief executive officer Noel Lim is the Legaspi patriarch’s son-in-law. Another company official, Nicko Lim, is the old man’s grandson.

Before the sale, Angelo and former Mayor Feliciano Legaspi were both named lessee in a joint affidavit issued by Noel Lim, Arthur Legaspi and three others on January 8, 2018. In other words, they were business partners.

Top of its kind

The DENR granted Angelo the Environmental Compliance Certificate for the project with a Category 4 grade, the highest given so far to a landfill project, allowing the proponent to widen the area from 19 hectares to 148 hectares of land in the next few years.

At least 10 major dumps and landfills had serviced Metro Manila at various times. Among these were Payatas, 23.2 hectares; San Mateo, 73 hectares; Clark, 85 hectares; and Carmona, 63 hectares. A former dump, the 22-ha. Smokey Mountain in Tondo, Manila, was ordered closed by President Fidel Ramos administration in May 1993. It had a Category 2 rating; San Mateo, Category 3.

The Norzagaray landfill was expected to receive between 2,000 and 3,000 tons of garbage a day, compared with Clark’s 1,500 tons and Payatas, 1,200 tons. The 63-ha. Carmona facility had a daily capacity of only 1,000 tons, while Smokey Mountain had 1,500 tons.

In 2006, Bulacan province had a total waste generation of about 700 tons per day, and Quezon City, 1,700 tons. Assuming that all local government units in Bulacan and in Quezon City were to tap the new facility, with waste diversion of 15-20 percent per day, the 18.8-ha. facility was estimated to have a life span of 10 years with a total volume of 8,820,000 cubic meters.

Tourist attraction

When it formally announced the opening of the landfill in January 2008 on its website, Wacuman Inc. announced that the 18.8-hectare landfill would be “a tourist attraction” of Norzagaray. “(We) want them to see our system in our place which should not be abhorred because we are using the new state-of-the-art technology," the company said.

All that was 13 years ago.

Today, the landfill is closed and heavily guarded. Tourists are not allowed. Nearby residents remain restless.

From paradise to perdition: Tale of a sanitary landfill in Bulacan gone wrong 2
A gate of the Wacuman Inc. Sanitary Landfill in Barangay Paradise, San Jose del Monte, Bulacan. Gerry Lirio, ABS-CBN News

Not well managed?

Now based in Amsterdam, Palaypayon said her team left the operation of the sanitary landfill to Wacuman Inc. many years ago. She said she regrets the company failed to operate it as it was conceived.

“Exactly the plans and drawings were not followed, and the dump operation is not well-managed, unfortunately,” she told this newsman last week via Facebook Messenger. ABS-CBN News could still not locate Angelo as of posting.
Based on a study done by Palaypayon’s group in 2006, the area, though devoid of any primary growth forest because it was previously a mining site, still had the ambience of forest scenery around it due to its rolling to hilly terrain, with steep cliffs in some sections of the deeply incised narrow valleys.

For the residents, Barangay Paradise was once upon a time a paradise. The view from the top still offered a panorama of abundant vegetation. Going up, a motorist would see different varieties of fruit-bearing trees mixed with secondary growth forest and tropical grasses and shrubs.

Once a paradise

From paradise to perdition: Tale of a sanitary landfill in Bulacan gone wrong 3
Another part of the Istrabiyal River in Bulacan. Courtesy of Balitang SJDM Facebook

Its groundwater was considered poor, but the water-bearing horizons were tight, indicating a very low hydraulic conductivity due to the inherent characteristics of the rock suite at the mountaintop. It was paradise just the same, especially when life in the remote barangay was slow and tranquil.

The Istrabiyal River, still clear and flowing, was a sight to cherish, especially during the wet season when it danced to the rhythm of the pouring rain. It was still a paradise, residents said, until dozens of garbage trucks and bulldozers rolled and roared along the road, even in the middle of the night.
Last September, when they gathered signatures anew for another set of complaints, Cardona and the other barangay officials hoped that Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu would take a closer look this time.

DENR’s inspection

Part of the first complaint was a letter dated August 1, 2017 and signed by DENR director for Central Luzon, Lormelyn Claudio, asking Wacuman Inc. officials to clean up and penalizing them for violating Presidential Decree 1586 of 1978, otherwise called the Environmental Impact Statement System, which seeks to maintain a balance between the environment and socio-economic development.

Quoting DENR engineer for San Jose del Monte, Thelma Bautista, Claudio said solid wastes were seen floating in Sta Maria River from the landfill, or just past the Istrabiyal River. Based on the report of the DENR inspection team, Claudio’s letter said “portion of Cell No. 1 of the landfill collapsed and a large volume of waste contained therein was carried away by rainwater into Cell No 2 then near the Saluysoy Creek, (which drains) to Sta. Maria River.”

From paradise to perdition: Tale of a sanitary landfill in Bulacan gone wrong 4
Evidence of the Istrabiyal River littered with garbage, part of the exhibits submitted by the complainants. Handout

Wacuman Inc. officials tried to comply, but armed men, allegedly sent by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas which used to have stakes at the DeLeon’s property, allegedly blocked them from doing the repair. On August 14, 2017, Claudio asked Norzagaray Mayor Geronimo Cristobal and San Jose del Monte Mayor Arthur Robes to “ensure the unhampered transport of construction materials for the remediation and rehabilitation measures.” They finished the repair in December.

On rainy days

But when it rains, trash flows and mixes with the flowing river, residents said, and it flows strongly when it rains hard, the residents said.

Last October 9, a DENR source said officials sent to the Wacuman Inc. office a notice of violations and asked them to reply to the complaint.

In their September 2 complaint, residents asked the DENR to take a closer look at the landfill.

“Saving the environment is an important job that we should all be involved in. Pollution is one of the many things that we should try to reduce. Earth is a beautiful place where we live. We need to make sure that we keep this wonderful place clean and not mess with the environment,” Cardona said in her affidavit.

On a Facebook page titled “Balitang SJDM”, residents aired their stand on the landfill. There were Wacuman Inc. sympathizers, too, especially workers and their relatives. There were those who spoke nostalgically about the Istrabiyal River they once knew.

‘Wacuman no criminal liability’

But San Jose del Monte Mayor Arthur Robes and Norzagaray Mayor Fred Germar both refused to issue the landfill a business permit. The Germars and the Legaspis are political rivals, with Germar having defeated a Legaspi in the May 2019 mayoral elections.

However, Wacuman Inc.'s environmental clearance remains valid until it is revoked. “We are still studying the matter,” a DENR officials told ABS-CBN News last week. “But the landfill will have to settle its issues with the local government.”

In March 2018, a panel of San Jose Del Monte prosecutors ruled that Wacuman Inc. couldn’t be held criminally liable for the August 2017 explosion, saying no law had been passed to criminalize or penalize it.

“Respondents are correct to say that a sanitary landfill, while being a private undertaking, is greatly imbued with public interest. Thus, respondents should not be remiss of its obligation to ensure safe and proper waste handling and management,” said the report signed by Assistant Prosecutor Maica Guillermo.

“It should likewise be mindful of the right of the people to a balanced and healthful ecology in accord with the rhythm and harmony of nature.

“Had respondents maintained their facility in good condition, the trash slide incident, that may cause long-term negative effects to the environment, especially to the water resources, could have been avoided.

“Nevertheless, we adhere to the moral principle in criminal law that a person cannot be or should not face criminal punishment, except for an act that was criminalized by law before he performed the act,” the report said.

The residents have filed a motion for reconsideration, wondering why Wacuman Inc. could only be held civilly liable for what it called a tragedy.

“Whether or not the infraction is a result of force majeure is evidentiary in nature and should be (decided) upon by the trial courts,” the motion said.

“The fact is, the respondents already admitted in their counter affidavit that they already addressed the trash incident.”

Not in our backyard

The suits also bared open the conflict between San Jose Del Monte City and Norzagaray. As communities have gotten more crowded, it has become more difficult to site major facilities for waste management.

Steven Cohen, professor in the Practice of Public Affairs, Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, called that conflict NIMBY, or not in my backyard syndrome. “NIMBY takes place because people do not want to lose what they have and they do not trust the large and powerful institutions that try to site major facilities near their homes. But NIMBY is not a natural phenomenon; it is a social construct that needs to be addressed,” he said in an article he wrote for Huffpost.

In the Philippines, public acceptance is a must, manifested through the approval of the elected leaders.

The 18.8-hectare property lies a few kilometers away from a 50-foot statue of Catholic saint Padre Pio, also known as Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, and from several pieces of property owned by various Philippine companies and prominent individuals living inside and outside Bulacan. Local church officials hope to promote it as a site for tourism and worship.

Wacuman Inc. had told DENR officials that it was doing its best under the circumstances to prevent another tragedy and to inflict no harm and inconvenience to anyone, but residents continue to demand the relocation of the sanitary landfill. They reelected Cardona as barangay captain in May 2018, hoping she would continue their fight.

“We probably won’t have a disaster like a landslide in Smokey Mountain or Payatas,” Cardona said. “But we hope the authorities won’t wait for an environment destruction here before they act.”

Now 58, Cardona said she wished that the DENR would close the landfill, stop the rolling and roaring garbage trucks even in the middle of the night so that she and her people can sleep well at night.