Environmental groups on Tuesday hailed a landmark court decision to award damages to complainants in a mining disaster in Marinduque nearly three decades ago and after 21 years of a legal battle with Marcopper Mining Corp.
Judge Emmanuel Recalde of Branch 38 of the Marinduque Regional Trial Court (RTC) has ordered Marcopper to pay damages to at least 30 plaintiffs in a case filed in 2001, after the siltation dam of Marcopper collapsed on Dec. 6, 1993, and flooded the villages of Bocboc and Magapua in Mogpog, Marinduque, causing extensive damage to properties and agriculture.
The plaintiffs accused Marcopper of negligent acts that resulted in the breach of the Maguila-guila Dam and the flooding of the Mogpog River with silt water at the height of Typhoon Monang (international name: Lola).
On March 24, 1996, or three years after the Maguila-guila Dam incident, a plug in a drainage tunnel at Marcopper’s Tapian Pit failed, releasing about 200 million tons of toxic mine tailings into the Makulapnit and Boac rivers. At least 36 people died from heavy metal contamination caused by the mine wastes. The spill, which also left the Boac River virtually dead, is considered the country’s worst industrial pollution disaster.
In a decision dated May 16, the Marinduque court found Marcopper liable for damages by reason of negligence in the operation and maintenance of the Maguila-guila Dam. But in view of the absence of any documentary evidence in support of the actual loss or damage suffered by plaintiffs, the court awarded only temperate damages.
It was also established that Marcopper was negligent in the performance of its duty to conscientiously operate and maintain the dam that led to the oversedimentation of the facility, causing it to breach, thereby spilling floodwater containing silt into the Mogpog River to the damage and prejudice of the plaintiffs, the decision read.
It said it only took less than a year for the facility to be overwhelmed with silt and sediments “to the point that it could not perform its supposed function.”
“With Marcopper’s capability and all the resources it had, it could have easily abated the incident had it consistently inspected the Maguila-guila Dam,” it pointed out.
Marcopper was ordered to pay P200,000 as temperate damages, P100,000 moral damages, and P1 million as exemplary damages to at least 30 plaintiffs.
The temperate damages had been paid as per a memorandum agreement in 1994, according to the Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center (LRC), a nongovernmental organization which pursued the case and served as legal counsel of the complainants.
The court said it would not rule on the prayer for the issuance of an order for the complete rehabilitation of the Mogpog River as this is contained in another petition pending before the higher court.
It added that it would also not rule on the total closure and removal of the Marcopper dumps, under the same justification and that the government had already ordered a stop to all operations of Marcopper.
“This is a victory for the plaintiffs who had waited two decades for justice as much as it is for the other plaintiffs who had unfortunately died in the course of this case,” said Elizabeth Manggol, executive director of the Marinduque Council for Environmental Concerns (Macec).
Manggol said in a phone interview on Tuesday that they felt a bit of relief but were also anticipating the other camp to appeal the decision. Macec and lawyers of LRC provided their service in locating and profiling victims, and giving them legal, technical and even financial assistance for the case against Marcopper.
Manggol said one of their leaders and a plaintiff in the case, Mila Muhi from Barangay Bocboc, Mogpog, was overjoyed and in tears when she learned of the court ruling.
“They did not leave us, even though we couldn’t pay them,” Muhi said in a separate interview on Tuesday of the lawyers who assisted them in the fight against the mining company.
Manggol said they welcomed the decision of the court but felt sad that the rehabilitation of the Mogpog River was not included in it.
The Marcopper disaster should serve as a warning for communities who wish to embrace mining, said lawyer Ryan Roset, direct legal services coordinator of LRC.
“Litigating mining-related cases like this celebrated case is a slow march to justice. Communities must think their decisions through for the impact of the environment can be irreversible. In the case of Marinduque, the river affected by the spill is all but dead,” he said.
Alyansa Tigil Mina said that while the decision took decades, it sends an encouraging signal to communities badly affected by mining.
For Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment, the Marcopper disaster is “a cautionary tale on how the Mining Act of 1995 and related policies have been lacking teeth and biased toward big businesses and their political sponsors.”
Reminder to miners
In a statement, the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines (COMP) said the Marinduque court’s ruling against Marcopper serves as a reminder that the safety of the people living in mining sites is of greatest importance.
“The incident is a constant reminder to miners all over the world that the safety of all stakeholders in host mining communities is paramount. It underscores that extreme consequences to people and the environment from catastrophic tailings facility failures are unacceptable,” said COMP in a statement.
COMP expressed its gratitude for the enactment of new laws after the Marcopper mining disaster took place, which it said led to the establishment of a mandatory environmental guarantee fund mechanism known collectively as the Contingent Liability and Rehabilitation Fund.
Some of the plaintiffs in the case had developed skin rashes that later became wounds or unknown skin disease on their feet, which they believed they got from regularly crossing the poisoned river.
Residents of Mogpog filed a civil case against Marcopper in 2001 and hearings at the Marinduque RTC began in September 2002.
The Marinduque government had also filed a $100-million class suit against Marcopper in 2005, only to see the case thrown out by a court in the United States for reasons of technicality after almost 10 years of court proceedings.
In 2014, Barrick Gold Corp., the company that absorbed Marcopper’s operator Placer Dome, offered a $20-million settlement, but the Marinduque provincial board turned it down after it felt that the amount was not enough to compensate for the environmental damage wrought by the mining disaster on the island.
—WITH REPORTS FROM JORDEENE B. LAGARE AND INQUIRER RESEARCH