President Benigno Aquino III’s marching orders to Environment Secretary Ramon Paje brooked no argument: Do not compromise on the environment.
Paje said this was the policy laid down by the President as he sought a solution to the mineral waste spill in Benguet province involving the country’s biggest gold and copper producer, Philex Mining Corp.
“His only instruction to me was to implement the law and to make sure there’s no compromise regarding the environment,” Paje told reporters on Tuesday.
Philex was fined P1.034 billion by the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) for the spills, based on the bulk density of 1.531 tons solid per cubic meter of the mine tailings.
Because of the leaks, sediments from the tailings pond flowed into the Balog River, a tributary of the Agno River, which is the source of water of San Roque Dam in Pangasinan province.
Paje said he had been regularly updating Mr. Aquino on developments in the spill of 20.6 million metric tons of sediments from a tailing pond of the Philex facility in Itogon, Benguet province, which started to leak in August following back-to-back typhoons.
“I’ve been sending him reports on what has been going on…. He also brought it up himself,” Paje said when asked if he had personally discussed the issue with the President.
Under the Mining Act of 1995, each ton of waste spilled shall correspond to a P50 fine.
Philex protested the imposition of the fine on grounds of “force majeure,” or the fact that the leak occurred due to an unavoidable accident. But MGB upheld its findings and ordered Philex to settle its obligations within 45 days.
The next legal move for Philex would be to take its appeal to the Office of the President, which Paje said was part of the company’s right to exhaust all administrative remedies.
But Paje said his department would insist on Philex’s liability and maintain that its argument held no sway.
He added that the refusal of Philex to pay the fine would be detrimental to the firm because it could not resume operations of its Itogon facility.
Operations at the Padcal mine have been suspended since Aug. 1, when there was an accidental leak in Tailings Pond No. 3 following heavy rains. There were no reports of fatalities or injuries, and initial tests showed discharges were non-toxic.
Philex has been in operation in the past 57 years and employs about 2,500 regular workers, according to Paje’s department.
Philex hosts a mining community with a population of about 14,000 deep in the highlands of the Cordilleras.
Told about Mr. Aquino’s directive to Paje about the waste spill in Benguet, Michael Toledo, Philex senior vice president for corporate affairs, said the firm was one with the DENR and the President in protecting the environment.
“Definitely, we must focus our energies on going after those who have harmed the environment and that goes for all industries, not only mining,” Toledo said in a phone interview.
“We are one with the directive in ensuring environmental protection. Various industries must keep in mind the present laws on the environment as well as the policy of sustainable development.
“As Philex has always said, while meeting needs of the present we must not forget the needs of future generations. We have to remember that we are just stewards for the next generations to come and we must leave enough resources for the next generation to benefit from the bounties of nature. We are together with the government in that respect,” Toledo said.