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50 mayors face raps for operating open dump

12:25 AM February 11, 2016

Fifty mayors, 50  vice mayors and almost 500 other local officials are facing environmental charges in the Office of the Ombudsman for allowing open dumps in their municipalities, among other violations of the 15-year-old Ecological Solid Waste Management Act.

In the first sweeping effort to enforce the law, also known as Republic Act No. 9003, the National Solid Waste Management Commission (NSWMC) on Wednesday filed complaints against at least 555 local officials for failing to comply with waste management standards prescribed by the law.

The officials come from 50 cities or towns across Luzon, the Visayas and Mindanao.

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No official from Metro Manila was charged, but there were officials charged from towns in neighboring provinces, including Rizal, Cavite and Quezon.

Besides the mayors and vice mayors, the other officials facing charges were members of municipal or city councils and chief environmental officers of local governments.

 

Ceremonial filing

Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales personally received the affidavits from Commissioner Romeo Hidalgo of the NSWMC in a ceremonial filing attended by the principal author of RA 9003, Sen. Loren Legarda, and Ramon Magsaysay laureate Antonio Oposa Jr. and leaders of other environmental organizations.

“We assure you of our firm and decisive action on your complaints consistent with the law,” Morales said, addressing Hidalgo.

In a teary and rambling speech, Hidalgo said he was overwhelmed that the government was finally taking action on open landfills that cause environmental disasters.

“Finally, there is action after Payatas,” he said, referring to the July 2000 tragedy in Quezon City where a mountain of trash collapsed, burying 300 people alive.

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The disaster pointed to the need for government action against trash dumps. The Payatas dump has since been converted into a controlled trash management center in compliance with RA 9003.

Hidalgo hinted at fears of reprisal among members of the NSWMC, saying he ended up volunteering to be the principal complainant because no other member of the commission wanted to step forward.

Officials’ ‘imprimatur’

In her keynote remarks, the Ombudsman acknowledged that environmental offenses were “oftentimes committed with the imprimatur” of government officials.

Legarda, chair of the Senate committees on finance and climate change, expressed relief and happiness that the law she had written was finally being enforced.

She said she had realized that passing a law was not enough. She was a junior senator in 1998 when she filed the bill that would become RA 9003.

“I thought, as naive and optimistic as I was as a very young senator of 38 years, my dream as a journalist of seeing no more dumps … would finally come to fruition,” she said. “I thought it was going to be immediate, overnight and magic.”

But it took 15 years before the government finally exerted serious efforts to enforce the law, she said.

Still not satisfied

She was still not satisfied, she said. “Fifteen years has been too long for a grace period and there is no acceptable excuse for noncompliance, especially because there are [local governments] that were able to implement this law, which basically says we must segregate garbage and recycle,” she said.

She said some detractors teased her that her law “does not work so let’s use incinerators.”

“Thank you to the Ombudsman for helping us,” she said.

Oposa, a lawyer and environmentalist who won the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2009 for his crusade on protecting the environment, said the filing of cases against the local officials was not a scare tactic.

“First we instill in them the need for action, then we strengthen their hand and support them when they’re doing good,” he said.

“When subpoenas are sent to [local governments], they would panic … crisis. But then they could also turn it into an opportunity for compliance. It’s not meant to scare [local governments] but to support other [local governments that] are complying,” he said.

Not yet criminal cases

Deputy Ombudsman for Luzon Gerard Mosquera clarified that the charges filed were not yet full-blown administrative or criminal cases, but complaints for a “strategic fact-finding investigation.”

“The Ombudsman will gather evidence to determine if there’s a basis to [mount] a full-blown investigation,” he said.

The officials, he explained,  will be given the opportunity to remedy the situation by submitting priority corrective action plans (PCAP) within six months and to implement the plans afterward.

“If there’s no action, no response to subpoenas, or no implementation of PCAP, or there’s only incomplete compliance, a full-blown administrative case or even criminal case will be filed,” Mosquera said.

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