SEMIRARA ISLAND, Antique—Miner Adrian Cilmar is in a dilemma: Will he go back to work or not?
Cilmar was still contemplating after surviving the massive collapse of a wall portion in the open mine pit that killed five of his coworkers at Semirara Mining Corp. (SMC) on Semirara Island in Antique. Five others remained missing.
“I may not have a choice. I have to work to feed my family,” said Cilmar, who has a 5-month-old baby.
Like many residents on the island, Cilmar depends on SMC for his livelihood. In fact, its continued operation is critical for employees and islanders who depend on the company’s presence there.
SMC employs some 2,800 employees and provides free housing to them, plus free electricity of up to 300 kilowatts monthly.
Noeli Lim, chair of Barangay Semirara, said 4,000 people relied on SMC operations for livelihood. Most of them are engaged in fishing, shell-gathering and farming.
Semirara, the biggest of three villages on the island (the two others are Tinogbok and Alegria), hosts SMC’s Panian pit. Its internal revenue allotment share every year is P4.2 million, but its share in royalty from mining reached P225 million last year.
The municipality of Caluya, which has jurisdiction over the island, received a royalty share of P290 million last year, said Vice Mayor Diosdado Egina.
SMC has built schools and provided training and employment to residents. This year, it will donate a 16-room building for Semirara Elementary School.
It is constructing a modern market building to be run by the employees’ cooperative.
Despite the bounty, some residents and village officials said years of mining operations had not significantly improved their lives and had even destroyed Semirara’s rich marine resources.
“Many farmers and shell-gatherers have complained that their fish catch has significantly dropped through the years,” a former employee said.
Tinogbok’s barangay chair, Amelita Panganiban, said only 100 residents from her village worked in the company, mostly hired by contractors and not as regular employees.
Many employees are not even natives of Semirara or Caluya town but from other provinces, Panganiban said.
“Many of the residents here could not afford to send their children even to public schools,” she said.
SMC, owned by DMCI Holdings Inc., has been operating one of the biggest coal mines in Asia on Semirara Island since 1999 after it took over the then government-owned Semirara Coal Corp. In 2011, it posted a P6-billion profit.
On Feb. 13, the wall of the Panian pit collapsed on 13 miners taking coffee break. Three managed to get out, but the rest were not as lucky.
Victor Consunji, SMC president and chief operating officer, has given P1 million each to the families of those who died and were still missing. Livelihood, employment and educational assistance will also be given to the families.
Several workers claimed that the collapse of the wall was waiting to happen. They all refused to come out and be identified for fear of losing their jobs.
“The landslide could not have been prevented but the death of so many was preventable. Some officials responsible for the operations ignored warnings,” one employee told the Inquirer.
There was also talk of risks in working at the bottom of the pit and of fear of a collapse.
Top company officials flatly rejected the allegations.
“That is not true. There was no indication that the wall would collapse,” Ruben Lozada, SMC assistant resident manager and head of operations of the mine site, told the Inquirer.
Lozada said if there were warnings of a landslide, they would have pulled out their personnel.
“Two members of our crack monitoring team personnel were on the mine pit. One died and the other survived because the accident was unexpected,” he said.
The team regularly monitors fissures and increases in the magnitude of the fissures in the mining site.
The landslide affected a 150-meter-wide area of the western wall of the mining pit. But continued slides have widened the affected area.
The Department of Energy (DOE) has formed a five-member team to determine the causes and draw measures how such an incident can be prevented.
Energy Undersecretary Ramon Allan Oca, who heads the investigation, said he had not received reports that there were already signs of the collapse of portions of the western wall of the 360-hectare Panian pit.
“The company has met international standards on safety management, quality management and environmental management. They know that an accident is costlier than preventing one,” Oca told the Inquirer.
Results of the DOE investigation will determine when the company can resume extraction operations at the pit.
President Aquino earlier said the operations of the mining firm would remain suspended until safety was ensured. But the President and energy officials acknowledged that a long-term suspension of the SMC operations may raise electricity rates.
Energy officials said SMC supplies 7 million metric tons (MT) of coal annually or 94 percent of locally produced coal. Of this volume, 2.2 million MT is exported while 4.8 million MT is for the 600-megawatt Calaca power plant in Batangas and other companies like cement factories.
Environmental groups have repeatedly raised concern on the effects of mining operations on the environment of Semirara Island, which is considered rich in marine resources. But the company has denied any violations and has maintained that it has been abiding by environmental laws and guidelines.
For Semirara residents, the immediate concern is to find the missing victims and move on with their lives.