MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Oxfam International report highlights continuing problems at Marinduque

Published by MAC on 2005-04-14

Oxfam International report highlights continuing problems at Marinduque

April 14, 2005

Kelly Patterson, Ottawa Citizen

It came silently in the night: a wall of toxic silt two-storeys high, rushing down the mountainside. One minute Marites Tagle and her family were asleep; the next they were engulfed in sludge laced with cadmium, copper and zinc.

"My first child was found by her dad ... she was covered with mud,'' Marites told the international aid agency Oxfam last summer. Her other daughter was found four days later, smothered Dec. 6, 1993 by tailings from the Canadian-backed Marcopper mine on Marinduque Island in the Philippines.

Marites says she got $22 for each daughter.

Twelve years later, Placer Dome, the Canadian company at the centre of the catastrophe, is gone. Soon after a second and even worse disaster in 1996, the Vancouver-based firm sold its shares and got out of the Marinduque operation.

But the toxic legacy of the copper mine lives on. Mothballed in 1996, it left behind a causeway of tailings that stretches seven kilometres into the sea. Tattered sandbags full of mine waste line the banks of the Boac River, and heavy metals seep continuously into the local rivers, according to a major study led by the U.S. Geological Survey in 2004.

Only weeks ago, Oxfam issued a hair-raising report on the agony the islanders still endure, allegedly from contamination of their environment: children writhing in pain from heavy-metal poisoning; fishermen with skin blistered with lesions from mine waste in the water; islanders as young as eight dying from a diet of toxic fish.

In recent years, more than 70 children have been treated for heavy-metal poisoning, according to the report.

"Oxfam is appalled by what has happened on Marinduque,'' Ricky Stuart, executive director of Oxfam Canada, said at the launch of the study.

The aid agency and MiningWatch Canada are calling on Placer Dome to take responsibility for the fallout from the mine, in which it held a 39.9-per-cent share and served as a key technical adviser for nearly three decades.

"For 30 years, Placer Dome reaped the benefits of this mine,'' argues Catherine Coumans of MiningWatch. When disaster struck, it "dumped its shares and it dumped its responsibility,'' she charges.

But while Placer Dome CEO John Willson said at the time of the 1996 spill, his company has a "moral responsibility'' to the island's residents, Keith Ferguson, vice-president of safety and sustainability at Placer Dome, points out "we were not the owner or operator of the mine.''

He says the firm had a "fairly significant holding'' in Marcopper, but says it was nonetheless a minority shareholder until 1997, when it divested entirely.

He says the firm voluntarily put up more than $80 million US for remediation and compensation after the 1996 spill, which made headlines around the world.

"To me that doesn't sound like running away,'' Ferguson says.

In fact, Placer Dome, now the sixth-largest gold-mining company in the world, is an international leader in corporate responsibility, he says.

"We were the first mining company (in Canada) to come out with a sustainability policy,'' said Willson. A prominent member of Ethical Funds, an index of "socially responsible'' companies, Placer Dome also runs an award-winning community development program in South Africa.

But critics say there's no doubt Placer Dome was the real force behind the notorious Marcopper mine.

Joost Pekelharing, chairman of Marcopper's board, puts it bluntly: "It is obvious that during the period Placer was involved in the mine, they were in fact managing the operations.''

Coumans points out that for 20 years, the only other major shareholder in Marcopper was Ferdinand Marcos, the famously corrupt former president of the Philippines (after he was deposed in 1986, the Filipino government took over his shares).

Placer Dome was "the only party with the technical expertise ... to manage such a large-scale mine,'' the Oxfam report argues. Some of the managers and even some of the presidents of Marcopper were seconded from Placer Dome, Oxfam adds - a claim Ferguson denies, while admitting some of the mine's managers were "former Placer Dome employees.''

The Canadian firm considers both the toxic spill that killed Marites' children and the 1996 disaster acts of God, blaming heavy rainfall for the failure of the mine's containment systems.

It does not believe the causeway of tailings poses an environmental threat, and it denies the islanders' health has been affected.

Whoever is responsible for the problems on Marinduque, one thing is certain: Someone has to act, and soon.

Because not only are poisons still seeping from the abandoned mine, but another, more urgent problem now looms: According to the U.S. Geological Survey, four of the mine's crumbling dams, as well as a critical drainage tunnel at one tailings pit, could give way any day, once again unleashing tonnes of toxic mine waste on the villages of Marinduque.

The picture is sobering: A set of craggy pipes jut into the sea, belching sludge onto the beach. Metres away, slabs of hardened slurry from the copper mine rise out of the water, stretching seven kilometres out into Calancan Bay.

This is where, from 1975 to 1991, Marcopper dumped 200 million tonnes of mine tailings - enough to circle the Earth three times if they were loaded into bumper-to-bumper dump trucks, as one news report put it.

"You can take your car and drive out on the tailings,'' says Coumans, who lived on the island occasionally for three years. Local villagers still fish and swim in these waters, although fish are reportedly becoming more and more scarce.

In 2000, the geological survey found levels of cadmium, cobalt, copper, zinc and lead in the causeway that were toxic to marine life, and in 2004, it noted "elevated tissue levels of copper, cadmium and lead ... for several species of fish collected in Calancan Bay.''

The Philippines Non-communicable Disease Control Service also found high levels of lead and cadmium in the soil and air around the bay, including one site where lead levels were three times higher than the U.S. standard, and cadmium seven times the limit, Oxfam reports.

In 1997, health authorities tested 59 local children and found all of them had high levels of lead in their blood, prompting Philippines President Fidel Ramos to declare a "state of calamity'' for three villages around the bay.

Several children were sent to Manila for the painful process of blood detoxification; 74 less serious cases were treated with medication.

For others, intervention came too late: According to Oxfam, 14-year-old Calancan Bay resident Marvic Quindoza died in 1998 of heavy-metal poisoning. Last October, toxins killed 19-year-old Ambeth Relloque, also from the area, the agency says.

In 2003, Roden Reynoso died of the consequences of arsenic and lead poisoning, according to his doctor. He was eight.

But Ferguson says Placer Dome does not believe the tailings are polluting the bay. He points to the geological survey's study, which did not find significant amounts of lead, mercury or arsenic in the tailings, and which speculated that cases of lead poisoning may be due to other causes, such as the use of leaded gas.

Coumans calls that theory "absurd,'' noting that "there are not even roads to some of the Calancan Bay villages and others receive public transportation once a day. People do not own cars and there is no 'traffic' to speak of.''

The study did not rule out the mine tailings as a source of heavy metals, she points out. Commissioned by the Philippine government primarily to evaluate previous studies, the geological survey itself conducted only limited tests, and recommended more comprehensive sampling.

And the report is categorical about one thing: Whether or not the tailings themselves are poisonous, they are still a source of toxic runoff, through a process called acid-rock drainage.

Whenever waste rock from a deposit such as the one on Marinduque is exposed to the air - as it is in Marcopper's two tailing pits and the causeway - erosion leaches out a host of potential toxins, including sulfuric acid, copper, lead, zinc and arsenic.

The U.S. study repeatedly stressed that acid-rock drainage is poisoning fish and plants in the local rivers. The team found high levels of several heavy metals both in the tailings and in runoff from the mine.

It did note, however, that the most toxic products of acid-rock drainage - lead, arsenic and cadmium - did not appear to exceed safe levels.

Ferguson suggests the cases of heavy-metal poisoning were misdiagnosed due to poor laboratory procedures. The U.S. study also raised concerns about the lab analyses, and expressed frustration that health studies so far have not been exhaustive enough to pinpoint scientifically the cause of the islanders' health problems.

Marcopper's Pekelharing claims the report "concludes there is no linkage whatsoever between the mine and serious health issues.''

Geological survey scientists could not comment, as the 350-page report has yet to be officially released. But in a copy obtained by the Ottawa Citizen, the report says it doesn't have enough data to evaluate the health impact of the mine, and calls for more research.

In particular, the report says that, while it is known that potentially harmful levels of heavy metals are leaking from the tailings, no one knows whether they are finding their way into the islanders' drinking water and food - or even into the air they breathe, through dust.

Oxfam Mining ombudsman Ingrid Macdonald agrees no definitive health study has yet been conducted. "But this does not mean these health problems don't exist.'' She points out that, time after time, "cases of children needing treatment for copper, mercury and cadmium toxicity have been documented by the Santa Cruz District Hospital,'' as well as the Philippines Department of Health, Philippines University and Philippines General Hospital.

She recalls the case of Calancan Bay resident Marvic Quindoza, dead at 14 of heavy-metal poisoning. "I don't see how this can be called 'analytically questionable.' This child is dead - as are others.''

Dec. 6, 1993: Villagers along the Mogpog River were sleeping as a typhoon raged outside. It was nothing special here, where an average 10 typhoons a year strike.

But a few kilometres upstream, disaster was brewing. As the rain lashed at its face, the earth-filled Mogpog River dam began to crumble. It was the only barrier between the villagers and tonnes of mine tailings, which had been dumped in a pit at the head of the river.

At dawn, the dam broke and a swell of silt as high as three metres swept down the river, washing away homes and flooding farmers' fields with mine waste. That was the night Tagle's children were smothered to death by mine tailings.

Marcopper initially refused to compensate any of the flood victims, but eventually gave a $713,000 grant to the town of Mogpog, according to Oxfam.

Coumans, who lived in Mogpog for a time before the disaster, remembers the river well.

"As we crossed the bridge, I would look down at the women washing their clothes, the scores of small kids ... swimming, and the men bringing their water buffaloes to the river to drink.''

Locals say the Mogpog River, now an eerie orange colour, is effectively dead. Those who wade through it develop the skin lesions typical of exposure to arsenic and copper sulfate, according to Oxfam scientific consultant Alan Tingay.

Both the geological survey report and Klohn Crippen, a Vancouver engineering firm hired by Placer Dome in 2001 to assess the mine's safety, say the dam was never properly repaired.

The result is sobering: For 12 years, mine waste has been steadily seeping into the river, creating a toxic cocktail of cadmium, copper, lead, manganese, nickel and sulfate, according to the Oxfam report.

"It is clear that unchecked erosion of mine wastes and acid-rock drainage from Marcopper are having substantial and far-reaching adverse environmental impacts on the Mogpog River,'' says the U.S.-led report, which found "toxic levels'' of copper, manganese and zinc in the river.

The study predicts that, even if the mine waste is properly disposed of, the river will never really recover.

Worse: Not only is the dam already overflowing, but the whole structure is in "imminent danger of failure,'' the study warns. Ferguson says Placer Dome may have had input, through its technical advisers, into how Marcopper was designed.

"From time to time, (we) provided some assistance. But it was up to Marcopper whether or not to take that advice,'' said Ferguson. Placer Dome also had representatives on the mine's board, he says.

As for the spill in 1993, he calls it an accident of nature, adding, "Unfortunately the Philippines does get hit with typhoons very frequently.''

March 24, 1996: A drainage plug at the mine's same tailings pit collapses, spewing hundreds of tonnes of mine waste into the Boac River, a major waterway on the island.

"It was a global catastrophe,'' recalls Coumans. Twenty villages were evacuated; some 4,400 people were stranded by the floodwaters.

The disaster wiped out almost all aquatic life in the 27-kilometre river, coating the entire riverbed in mine sludge. The UN declared it an "environmental disaster.''

This time Placer Dome did feel compelled to help. "As a major shareholder, Placer Dome is committed to ensuring that Marcopper will meet all its legal obligations,'' Willson announced at the time, adding, "I feel that Placer Dome also has a larger moral responsibility to the residents of the area.''

A year after the disaster, the Vancouver company sold its shares in the mine.

But its subsidiary, Placer Dome Technical Services, stayed behind until 2001 to see to the cleanup. The company plugged the tunnel, built roads and emergency shelters, provided medical screening for 18 months, and dredged the river. It also funded an aid program in the area.

In all, it spent about $80 million US, although Ferguson says some of that money also went to pay off Marcopper's debts. The company also paid $1.8 million US in compensation to victims of the spill.

"We came forward in 1996 to deal with the river spill and then we stayed from 1996 to 2001 through (the subsidiary) and we left money aside to effect a cleanup and to pay for compensation,'' Ferguson says. Placer Dome Technical Services left those funds in an escrow account for the mine and its new owner, registered as F Holdings.

And the effort to clean up the Boac River appears to have been more or less successful: Tailings remaining in the river have been diluted and covered by sediment; plant life and aquatic life have returned. Testing has shown groundwater in the area appears to be safe.

Some sobering issues remain: Almost 300,000 cubic metres of tailings remain in the river. In 1998, while Placer Dome Technical Services was still advising the mine, and again in 2002, locals were hired to haul tailings by hand back to a tailings pit; they left piles of potentially toxic mine waste in tattered sandbags along the riverbanks.

And while the 1996 catastrophe may no longer be a major cause for concern, the mine's crumbling containment systems are still allowing toxins to seep into the Boac and two other rivers, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The study adds that it takes time for toxins to find their way into the drinking water, so encouraging water tests may be deceptive. It also found copper, manganese and zinc levels in the Boac River were high enough to be toxic to aquatic life. For both the Mogpog and the Boac rivers, it noted, species diversity and abundance were "significantly reduced.''

Once a roaring operation, Marcopper lies eerily silent today. The zigzagging road that was slashed into a steep island slope some 30 years ago is deserted, as are the two giant pits of tailings the mine left deep in the highlands of Marinduque Island.

But silently, insidiously, the mine is still transforming the landscape of this tropical paradise.

Every day, toxins thread their way down the hillsides, through rivers and streams; more heavy metals lie half-buried amidst the sifting sand of the Boac River.

Much of this damage can never be repaired, according to the geological survey. Even if the mine's leaky containment systems are fixed, it concluded, there will likely "always be some level of acid and metal contamination ... probably for many decades to centuries.''

As for Calancan Bay, the situation is next to hopeless: Aside from one minor adjustment, "no other remedial action appears viable, given the volume of tailings.''

Meanwhile, islanders go to bed praying that the crumbling dams that stand between them and disaster hold for one more night, although engineering experts agree they won't hold for long.

Whatever the new mine owners do about these issues, Placer Dome will not be involved, Ferguson says.

The company's final compensation payments for the Boac River spill were to go through last month, "and that will complete our obligation,'' he said.

But Coumans disagrees.

"After 30 years of mining, they totally destroyed the ecology of this island.'' She argues that even if Placer Dome isn't legally responsible, it still has a moral responsibility to the people of Marinduque.

Oxfam agrees, saying the Canadian company made an estimated $1 billion U.S. from Marcopper.

Unfortunately, she says, it is all too typical for mining companies to wash their hands of environmental problems once they've made enough money. "These companies make a fortune, but what happens when things go wrong? They can just divest and leave.''

Federal NDP member of Parliament Ed Broadbent agrees. After Oxfam released its report on Marinduque, he urged lawmakers to extend the 2003 Westray Bill, which holds executives criminally responsible for health and safety violations, to the operations of Canadian multinationals abroad.

Meanwhile, back on Marinduque Island, life goes on. The fishermen still head out into the waters of Calancan Bay, steering around the causeway of mine waste as they hunt for their daily catch.

Inland, the crumbling heaps of tailings still lie open to the sun. Flakes of the potentially toxic, eroding rock drift on the tropical breeze, settling on crops, trees, people's hair and skin.

They call it their "snow from Canada.''

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