Mercury pollution in Chico River probed
Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala on Sunday questioned farmers and Cordillera officials at a forum here about a government report that says mercury traces had been detected in Chico River, the irrigation source for rice and corn farms in Kalinga and vegetable farms in Mt. Province.
The report led Kalinga Governor Jocel Baac to ban pocket mining operations in his province.
Baac told Alcala that the mercury traces could have also come from the tailings dam of the idle Batong Buhay mines, which may have spilled over due to massive amounts of rain dumped by recent typhoons.
“Batong Buhay mines could be a problem because strong rains could have caused the dam to overflow and discharge into Chico River. But we also suspect that mercury there was caused by small-scale mining. So my directive is meant to give time for government to review the condition of Chico River,” Baac said.
Paquito Moreno, Cordillera director of the Environment Management Bureau (EMB), confirmed that the Chico River was the subject of a study, but he said the amount of mercury pollution in the river had not reached levels that could trigger immediate health risks for people.
“Our water quality monitoring results [taken from] sampling points in the Chico River system [tested] positive for mercury presence. But [the volumes] were below the standards, meaning the mercury [mixed into the river] was within acceptable levels,” Moreno said in a text message.
Asked for details, Dante de Lima, director of the national rice production program of the Department of Agriculture (DA), said Alcala was apprised only recently about the mercury report but the agency was still waiting for a final and comprehensive report from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).
“There is a report but it has not yet been released officially… There’s a debate now in Kalinga because of Governor Baac’s order to ban small-scale mining… It’s a drastic step taken by the governor,” De Lima said.
Cleansing Chico River is the mandate of the DENR but the DA needs to be involved because of its impact on 94,000 hectares of farm lands in Kalinga, Alcala said.
The DA Cordillera office reported that the region produced 130,348 metric tons of palay at the end of June mainly because of Kalinga’s high rice yield in the first semester of 2011.
Baac said he relied on surveys conducted jointly by the DENR, the Department of Health and the Department of Science and Technology.
Mercury has been used by pocket miners to separate gold from silver but its ecological impact has convinced small-scale mine groups to support the ban on its sale, said Lomino Kaniteng, president of Benguet Federation of Small-Scale Miners.
He said the “ban mercury” campaign has been accelerated this year because high world metals prices have made underground pocket mining very lucrative.
Alcala offered to provide farm support for pocket miners displaced by Baac’s directive.
The headwaters of the Chico River system start in Mt. Data in Bauko, Mt. Province, which has been denuded by vegetable farms. The river water empties into the Cagayan Valley. Ten of its major tributaries navigate through Mt. Province while three tributaries negotiate Kalinga.
The DENR designed a watershed master plan for the river system’s management in 2006, and had factored in the potential impact of mining and vegetable farming activities on Chico River.
Operations at Batong Buhay mines in Pasil, Kalinga, ceased in 1985 after it became the subject of government sequestration owing to the P1.6 billion liabilities of its previous owner.
Good metal prices have encouraged investors to rehabilitate and revive its operations. Vincent Cabreza, Inquirer Northern Luzon
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