BAGUIO CITY—The engineer who helped build the damaged waste storage facility of gold producer Philex Mining Corp. in Benguet said it was wrongly constructed along a drain area of the Agno River.
Ricardo Famorca, retired assistant vice president of Philex, said this is a detail authorities must consider as the government monitors the process of stabilizing and repairing Tailings Pond No. 3, for which the firm paid P1.034 billion in penalties when the facility burst and spilled wastes into the Balog Creek on Aug. 1, 2012, during a storm.
Famorca, 81, said the tailings dam serves Philex’s original block caving operations at the Padcal mine in Itogon, Benguet.
But the facility sits on an area that serves as the main drain of Agno River, he told reporters here on Wednesday. This means that the dam sits atop a natural catchment area for river water and tributaries that flow down from the Benguet mountains.
Government mine engineers said Tailings Pond No. 3 was breached by gushing water that penetrated the tailings last year due to heavy rains dumped by successive storms.
The water had not discharged through a tunnel because of a damaged penstock system that controls the flow of water which is normally expelled from the dam. The hole was plugged a few days later.
Officials of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau in the Cordillera said Philex resumed operations on March 8 to generate 3.5 million tons of fresh mine waste to fill up the crevice left open by the breach.
Philex was given a temporary permit to operate for four months to fulfill this target, MGB said.
Lawyer Eduardo Aratas, Philex’s legal counsel at its Padcal mine, said the firm has no record that the damaged waste facility was located on a vulnerable area.
“[Famorca] was with our milling division [during his stint at Philex]. Be that as it may, the Tailings [Pond No.] 3 is intact given the Aug. 1 incident. It did not collapse. In fact, government regulators have cleared its use for remediation purposes,” Aratas said in a text message.
Fay Apil, MGB Cordillera director, said the concerns raised by Famorca were considered in the environmental impact assessment conducted before the government’s issuance of an environmental compliance certificate (ECC) for the construction of Tailings Pond No. 3 in the 1990s.
Famorca said he retired from Philex in 1992, the same year the tailings pond was completed. “I was the one who built that dam … But I was against the building of that dam in the main drain, [however] my bosses did not heed me,” Famorca said. “It’s a main drain. Sobrang water ang pumapasok (too much water discharges toward that area) because its catchment area is so big.”
He said he offered this information to help authorities craft a better program to protect Agno River.
Famorca confirmed Philex’s statements that the tailings expelled to the river were not toxic.
Famorca said Tailings Pond No. 3 was on his mind when rains poured hard on Aug. 1 last year. “I was waiting for them to call me. I know that dam like the palm of my hand,” he said.
The dam was designed to contain up to 140 million metric tons of tailings, Famorca said.—Vincent Cabreza