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LP backers, leader linked to Agusan del Norte mining violations

/ 03:10 AM March 06, 2015

SURIGAO CITY, Philippines—A group of church leaders and environmental advocates is seeing a link between the ruling Liberal Party (LP) and what it said was the violation of the law on small-scale mining by companies owned or run by ranking LP officials and supporters.

The group Caraga Watch on Tuesday held a rally at the office of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau here, assailing what it said was the impunity with which supposedly small-scale mining operations are violating the laws, including the Philippine Mining Act of 1995.

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Rev. Peter Vargas, of the United Church of Christ of the Philippines, said mining laws have become “a tool for the dynastic political class to perpetuate their hold on power to protect their favored mining companies.”

Vargas, a Caraga Watch coconvenor, cited the plunder case against the companies SR Metals Inc. (SRMI), San R Mining, and Galeo Equipment and Mining as an example of how firms are skirting the law and getting away with it because of protection by influential backers.

The three companies are behind the controversial nickel mines in the coastal town of Tubay in Agusan del Norte province.

In 2006, still operating as small-scale mines, the three firms had been ordered closed after government regulators found they exceeded the extraction limit of 150,000 metric tons (MT) of ore per year set for small-scale mines.

Records of the case filed at the Supreme Court showed that, in less than a year of operations, the three firms had already extracted 177,000 MT of nickel ore.

“Nothing has been done on the injustices and abuses committed by these mining companies,” said Vargas.

“Is it because their owners are closely affiliated with the Liberal Party?” Vargas added.

He said that at the time the plunder complaint was filed against the mining firms in 2007, Caloocan City Rep. Edgar Erice, an LP stalwart, was listed as president of one of the companies.

The other owners of SRMI—Miguel Alberto Gutierrez and Eric Gutierrez—are close political supporters of both President Aquino and Interior Secretary Mar Roxas.

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The Gutierrezes had been identified in media reports as the owner of the helicopter that was used by whistle-blower Ernesto Mercado to film the so-called “Hacienda Binay” in Rosario, Batangas.

The estate is owned by Vice President Jejomar Binay and part of his unexplained wealth, according to Mercado, former Makati City vice mayor and ally-turned-detractor of Binay.

Rev. Pio Moreno, another Caraga Watch coconvenor, had expressed the group’s willingness to intervene in the SRMI case, following the recent Supreme Court ruling that brought back to life the pending case against SRMI, San R Mining and Galeo.

The group challenged a Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) policy that appeared to relax rules on small-scale mining for the three companies and filed a case at the Court of Appeals in 2007. It lost, however.

It elevated the case to the Supreme Court, which recently issued a decision finding that, indeed, SRMI and its partner companies are guilty of excessive extraction of minerals.

In its ruling, the high court said “the issue raised on the violation of the equal protection clause is moot.”

“The fact is, the DENR treats all small-scale miners equally as the production limit applies to all of them,” said the high court ruling, promulgated in June last year and released in December.

“There is, therefore, no more reason for the mining corporations to not recognize and comply with the said limitation,” it added.

Telephone directories listed on SRMI’s website turned out to be wrong numbers when the Inquirer tried to call for comment. Danilo V. Adorador III, Inquirer Mindanao

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TAGS: Agusan Del Norte, Caraga Watch, Liberal Party, Mines and Geosciences Bureau, Mining, Philippine Mining Act of 1995, Rev. Peter Vargas, United Church of Christ of the Philippines
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