Opponents grill Gina Lopez on conflict of interest
Environment Secretary Gina Lopez, under fire from the mining industry for ordering last month the closure of 23 mines and cancellation of 75 mining production sharing agreements (MPSAs), was accused of conflict of interest on Wednesday when she faced the Commission on Appointments (CA) for the first time after several postponements.
One of those opposing her confirmation noted Lopez was heading a department that was supposed to supervise and oversee rehabilitation measures by First Philippine Industrial Corp. (FPIC) in Barangay Bangkal, Makati City, where its pipeline delivering petroleum products from Batangas to the Pandacan depot in Manila leaked in 2010. FPIC is a company owned by the Lopez family.
“My opposition to Secretary Lopez is that, it’s not because she’s part of the Lopez family, but she’s now the [environment] secretary charged with looking at this very, very serious environmental disaster,” said Carlos Arcilla, a geosciences professor at the University of the Philippines (UP).
Arcilla was contracted by the Makati City government to investigate the leak that seeped into the basement of the 22-story West Tower condominium in Barangay Bangkal.
Lopez has not visited the 100 families displaced from the condominium, he said.
On this point, Lopez said she “can’t check everything” and that her family was “fully aware” that it would be “treated just like everybody else” if it violated environmental laws.
No sacred cow
“If my family has been found remiss in the environment, they will be asked to comply and they’re fully aware of that. There’s no sacred cow here. I have [committed] to the President to serve my country and to serve the people. And I will do it in the most sincere way that I can, abiding by the highest principles,” she told the CA panel.
Arcilla, head of Earth Materials Science Laboratory at the UP National Institute of Geological Sciences in Diliman, Quezon City, also cited another Lopez-owned firm, First Balfour, which he claimed was undertaking open-pit mining in Lobo, Batangas, in a watershed area.
This conflicts with Lopez’s declaration that she is against open-pit mining in watershed areas, according to the professor.
“It so happens that there is an open-pit company that’s mining aggregates in a watershed in Lobo, exactly the place where below it is the biodiversity capital of the world. That is called First Balfour aggregate company. It’s owned by the Lopezes,” Arcilla said.
He questioned Lopez’s definition of a watershed, saying that if her general ban on open-pit mining in such areas were followed, then it would put a stop to all quarries, the source of construction materials. “With all due respect, your definitions are simply wrong,” he said.
Lopez, however, replied that First Balfour was not operating and that it had not been issued any mineral production sharing agreement.
She likewise pointed out that Arcilla was working as a consultant for several mining and construction firms.
Pursuing the issue, Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano noted that First Balfour seemed to have been exempt from Lopez’s mining ban in watersheds.
“If they’re in a watershed and they did not get the same kind of closure order that the others in the watershed got, then in fact they are a sacred cow,” he said.
Lopez also conceded during the hearing that she did not have all the technical expertise.
She later explained that her forte was development work and that she had an able roster of expert staff members to advise her on technical aspects of the job.
“Do you want a technical guy only? What is important in a Cabinet minister? Of all qualifications of a Cabinet minister, what’s the most important? Is it technical [skills]? Is it integrity? Is it development experience? I wanna help the Filipino people and I know that in taking care of the environment, that can happen,” she told reporters.
“I didn’t take up mining or engineering and I’m not even a lawyer. I have staff that are very good lawyers. We sit together and then we make decisions for the common good,” Lopez added.
Another person opposing Lopez’s confirmation for alleged incompetence introduced himself as a member of the Clean Air Advocates.
“She does not know exactly what the environment is all about,” Manny Galvez said.
He said the air quality monitoring system of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) was not working, as its equipment had not been fixed.
It turned out that Galvez’s business was air quality billboards, which relies on DENR data needed by his business enterprise.
Another hearing was scheduled for Thursday for more people opposing her confirmation.
Civil society groups supporting Lopez have criticized new CA rules allowing members to vote in secret if called for in a motion.
In a statement, the Sanlakas party-list group said the rules, which were implemented on the date of Lopez’s confirmation hearing, was an apparent way for the CA to evade accountability and public backlash. —WITH A REPORT FROM JAYMEE T. GAMIL
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