The Marcopper toxic mine disaster -Philippines' biggest industrial accident

In March this year, the Philippines experienced its worst industrial disaster when toxic spills from a copper mine owned mainly by a Canadian corporation caused widespread floods and extensive damage to a number of villages in Luzon.

By Victoria Tauli-Corpuz

THE issue of mining has been a controversial one in the Philippines since the early 1990s when the people of Itogon, in the Cordillera region launched protest against the open-pit mining operations of Benguet Corporation in that region. However, with the signing into force by President Ramos of the Philippine Mining Act of 1995 in May 1995 and with the approval by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) of six out of the 69 applications for Financial and Technical Assistance Agreements (FTAA) by foreign mining corporations to explore and operate mines in the country, the issue has now come to the fore.

In March this year, the biggest controversy arose with the leakage of waste from a mine owned by the Marcopper Mining Corporation in Boac, Marinduque. Marinduque is the smallest province of Region 4 of the Southern Tagalog region in Luzon. Its population is around 230,000 (1995) and its land area is 959 square kilometres.

It is host to Marcopper which is the country's third largest copper mining company. Marcopper, which reaped a net profit of P190,372 million (US$7,322 million) in 1994, produces 30,000 tons of copper ore each day.

On 24 March 1996, toxic mine tailings at the rate of 5-10 cubic metres per second were disgorged into the Makulapnit and Boac rivers. Discharge at the rate of 5-10 cubic metres is enough to fill up one dump-truck. It was estimated that the total amount of mine sludge spilled into the rivers was 1.5 million cubic metres.

The Tapian pit contains around 23 million metric tons of mine waste. Officials of the DENR claim that they did not know of the presence of the drainage tunnel measuring 2.6 kilometres long and 1 metre wide which is found underneath and which leads to the Makulapnit and Boac rivers.

Immediate effects

The toxic spills immediately caused flash floods which isolated five villages, with a population of 4,400 people, along the far side of the Boac river. One village, Barangay Hinapula, was buried under six feet of muddy floodwater and 400 families had to flee to higher grounds. Their sources of drinking water were contaminated while fish, freshwater shrimp and pigs were killed. Helicopters had to fly in food, water and medical supplies to the isolated villages. Residents of 20 villages out of the 60 villages in the whole province were advised to evacuate their communities.

The government estimates that this toxic waste killed P1.8 million worth of mature freshwater and marine life and P5 million bangus fry. The 27-kilometre Boac river, which is the main source of livelihood for those who are not part of the 1,000-strong workforce of Marcopper, has been declared dead by government officials.

On 17 April 1996, the Department of Health (DOH) came up with a report which said that residents could already be harbouring in their bodies amounts of zinc and copper which are beyond tolerable limits. Nine residents were found to have zinc in their blood which was more than 200% above safe levels. Water samples also revealed excessive and dangerous levels of contamination i.e. 1,300% above the human tolerable level of 0.5 microgram per 1/1000 litres of water. Residents also complained of skin irritations and respiratory problems which could have been caused by the poisonous vapours emitted by hydrogen sulfide and nitrous oxide from the mine wastes.

As early as August 1995, Marcopper had noticed the first seepage above the drainage tunnel near the Makulapnit river.The corporation sought the advice of a geotechnical consultant who recommended mitigating measures such as drilling a series of holes to intercept the seepage in the tunnel and then plugging the leaks. In October 1995, a hole was again plugged after a minor leakage. All this time the corporation did not take substantial measures like cementing the tunnel and closing it.The palliative measures obviously did not work as they led to the major accident on 24 March 1996.

History of ECC releases

In 1975, when the Marcos government was in power, Marcopper was granted a blanket permit to operate. This permit allowed it to dump mine tailings at the rate of 2 and 1/2 tons per second into the Calancan Bay. At that time Marcos, through his cronies, owned 49% of the corporation. Most of the environmental regulations were suspended or were non-operative as far as Marcopper's operations were concerned. Forty percent of the stocks, then as now, were owned by Placer Dome Copper Holdings, a Canadian company.

When Corazon Aquino came into power in 1986, the shares owned by Marcos in the corporation were seized by the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) and Aquino's nominees sat on the Board of Directors. The National Pollution Control Commission issued an order to Marcopper in November 1986 to stop disposing of its tailings in the Calancan Bay. A similar order was issued in April 1988 by Environment Secretary, Fulgencio Factoran Jr, and this was followed by a telegram denying Marcopper its request for a 'Permit to Operate'.

However, less than a month later, on 13 May 1988, President Aquino had the order reversed. The DENR, in the environmental compliance certificate (ECC), allowed it to operate for 10 years and to use the Tapian pit as its mine tailings dam. This ECC was signed on 16 April 1990 by the DENR Undersecretary for Environment and Research, Mr Delfin Ganapin, a well-known environmentalist in the country.

According to Mr Ganapin, when he signed the ECC, the corporation, and the experts they hired to make the environmental impact study (EIS), did not mention the existence of the Tapian drainage tunnel. He said, 'Not a single sentence is found mentioning about the tunnel in the EIS. The accountability of the proponent and the consulting firm is to completely identify the probable problem areas, because then we will look at the solution.' The consulting firm was the Rescan Environmental Services Ltd of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

The Bureau of Mines and Geosciences which had the task of monitoring Marcopper's compliance with the ECC, likewise, did not mention the existence of this tunnel. However, the residents in Marinduque claim that they had been aware that this tunnel had been there for almost 20 years.

Even after the first spillage in August 1995, the Bureau of Mines did not make a report of the 'engineering failure' which caused the tunnel to spill mine waste into the rivers.

Heads to roll

Because of this incident, investigations are being conducted and cases have already been filed against the corporation and the DENR officials. The mining operations were stopped temporarily by the government and measures were taken to contain the continuing leakage. On 11 April 1996, a criminal complaint was filed against five officials of the Marcopper Mining Corporation for the disastrous seepage of mine wastes into the waterways of Marinduque. These officials were the CEO, John Loney, Steve Reid, the resident general manager, and three senior managers.The charges include reckless imprudence causing damage to property, violations of the Water Code, Pollution Law of 1976, Philippine Mining Law of 1995, and falsification of public documents.

Meanwhile, the Ombudsman has filed administrative cases against four officials of the DENR for gross inexcusable negligence. Undersecretary Ganapin, who was one of those charged, has been suspended for 90 days for extending Marcopper's ECC by 10 years without conducting public hearings.

Dilemma between 'development' and the environment

This case concretises the dilemma faced not only by the Philippine government but by the Filipino people in general. Marcopper employs some 1,000 people, a majority of whom are from Marinduque. The company also supplies the electricity for the whole province and spends around P30 million a year for local goods and services. It pays taxes to the amount of P5 million and contributes P2 million for social projects.

In spite of all these, however, Marinduque has one of the highest incidence of poverty (71.9%) in the country. With the pollution of their waterways and the killing of marine resources which sustain the livelihood of the great majority, the people are now faced with difficult choices. Should they take a tough stance and push for the closure of the mines or should they just demand safer management of the toxic mine wastes? Should they not demand that government take on the burden of providing the basic social services instead of being dependent on a corporation which has devastated their lands and waters? There are many lessons to be learnt from this disaster. There are also many questions to be asked. It is clear that major changes have to be made in the whole environmental impact assessment system. Undersecretary Ganapin has called for the inclusion of the 'concept of social acceptability' into the EIA. 'Social acceptability' requirements can lead to more transparency and accountability.

For those who have been opposed to the Philippine Mining Act of 1995, this case will strengthen their position. Under this law, foreign corporations are allowed to own 100% equity. They can own lands, not less than 81,000 hectares, for 50 years, renewable for another 25 years. They are also given other rights like easement rights, which means they can ease the people out of their mining areas. On top of all these, they are allowed to use high technology which will allow them to recover their profits in the fastest time possible. They are also allowed to repatriate 100% of the profits they generate. This law not only threatens the environment but undermines the national sovereignty of the Filipino people. It also violates the rights of indigenous peoples to their ancestral lands, many of which have been identified as mineral-rich areas.

The governments of the Philippines, both past and present, have always shown a bias in favour of corporations, especially the foreign multinationals. The Mining Law is a clear case of how the government is tailor-fitting its own laws to serve such interests and to be consistent with GATT and World Trade Organisation rules. The people from the communities who are actively resisting the encroachment of mining corporations on their lands and resources are now demanding that the government should, for once, show a bias in favour of its own citizens.

It will be recalled that mining was not an issue discussed or even included in Agenda 21 of the Earth Summit. Peoples' organisations and NGOs should be more active in raising the mining issue and forcing the companies and governments to likewise seriously confront it. In this respect, experiences undergone by other peoples in other countries in relation to mining should be documented and shared on a broader scale. -TWR