LEGAZPI CITY—Unabated diggings of crisscrossing tunnels by miners seeking gold ore deposits in Paracale, Labo and Jose Panganiban in Camarines Norte are invitations to major disasters during extreme weather conditions, said Gilbert Gonzales, regional executive director of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).
Gonzales said during an interview that the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) was still counting the crisscrossing tunnels, including abandoned ones, made by small-scale mining operations. “The data would give us an in-depth study on the dangers posed by the mining operations in the three mining towns,” he said.
Lydia Burburan, DENR Ecosystem Research and Development Services Regional Technical Director, said miners had dug up crisscrossing tunnels ranging from 25 to 100 meters in vertical and horizontal mining shafts. These were discovered during an assessment of small-scale mining operations in the three mining towns in Camarines Norte.
She said the presence of this type of tunnels is a major issue that needs to be addressed by the DENR and provincial local executives. She said small-scale mining operations in the three towns produce 50 tons of gold yearly.
In Paracale, the body of small-scale miner Julian Cabaruvia, 22, floated up a mining pit on Thursday afternoon while another body was also sighted in the same pit that same day in the seaside village of Palanas, just 2 kilometers from the town proper here, the Camarines Norte police said on Friday.
The retrieval of Cabaruvia’s body from a pit around 7 meters away from where a blast was initially reported to have occurred on Wednesday bolstered suggestions that the blast could have pierced neighboring pits submerged in seawater, said Senen Inocalla, administrative aide of Paracale Mayor Romeo Moreno.
As of Friday, the Municipal Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council placed the death toll at three due to the mining accident. The three were Cabaruvia, Luis Policarpio, 33, and Carlo Delos Santos, 27.
Authorities, however, believe more bodies could be trapped amid the rubble and debris that may have prevented bodies from floating up.
Inocalla said rescuers have yet to explore and clear up the area where the accident happened but the municipal government had already asked help from the regional office of civil defense, which sent a team of nine, including technical divers, to oversee the operation on Thursday night.
“The retrieval operation has been hampered by lack of divers and by obstructions, including wood with nails and rock-filled sacks, which were making it almost impossible to go down the mining pits,” she said.
Authorities deemed at least seven mining pits were affected by the blast. The seven were among at least a hundred mining pits, with some exceeding depths of 20 meters, in the seaside community.
She said the local church has offered help to the municipal government.
Although out of town on an official trip, Moreno had given instructions to continue with the retrieval operation until all bodies were found, she added. Moreno had been criticized for leaving despite an ongoing retrieval operation.
The MGB on Thursday ordered the total dismantling of the structures in the mine site and urged the enforcement of a cease-and-desist order earlier issued by local authorities.
Gonzales said there was an order to close down all small-scale mining operations in coastal areas following a “no-mining order” issued by the late Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo to local governments.
He said his office has no hand in the issuance of small-scale mining permits as it is the domain of the provincial government under the Local Government Code.
No one knew the whereabouts of mining financier Agosto Jordan, who allegedly owns the pit where the blast occurred.
Inocalla said because of the accident, the municipal government was bent on stopping all small-scale mining operations in the municipality and the eviction of all miners illegally operating in Palanas and its neighboring village of Malaguit.
“But we anticipate that the move would cripple the already failing economy of Paracale that is heavily dependent on mining,” she said.
Inocalla said high-grade gold ore deposits in the seaside community has lured townsfolk to the area.
Gov. Edgardo Tallado said the provincial government has been helpless in stopping illegal mining in Paracale because miners keep on returning despite cease-and-desist orders.