MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Philippines: The Marcopper mine spill and the unending wait for justice

Published by MAC on 2019-04-05
Source: Vera Files, ABS-CBN

These two linked articles commemorate the 23rd anniversary of a mine waste disaster on the Philippine island of Marinduque. (For previous MAC coverage see: Philippines - Gina Lopez: the miners strike back)

The original articles carry shocking and impactful pictures of what is now a crumbling, rusting, ghost industrial site. The article stresses how all powerful this mine was politically, culturally, economically on the island for nearly 30 years.

However, the power of the un-reclaimed site to cause further environment destruction and harm to the people of Marinduque is as present as ever and a constant source of stress for them with every storm.

The Marcopper mine spill and the unending wait for justice

Nikko Dizon, VERA Files

2 April 2019

(First of two parts)

BOAC, Marinduque—The people of this island province have endured the brunt of the worst mining disaster in the country, but the bigger heartbreak in their two-decade-long quest for justice might just be the wait for redress that is not sure to come.

There’s nothing more tragic than to hear stories repeatedly told, but nothing done. It’s been 23 years since March 24, 1996, when a badly- sealed drainage tunnel in Marcopper Mining Corporation’s Taipan pit burst, spilling 1.6 million cubic meters of toxic mine tailings that choked Boac River, flooded villages and killed marine life.

One village, Barangay Hinapulan, was buried in six feet of muddy floodwater, displacing 400 families. Cows, pigs and sheep including pets were poisoned and died. Crops were destroyed. Boac River, a source of sustenance for surrounding communities, was declared unsafe.

Three years before that, the company’s Maguila-guila siltation dam also burst, flooding the town of Mogpog, where two children drowned in the mine waste.

Soon after the mining disaster, the United States Geological Survey said in a study that the Makulapnit and Maguila-guila siltation dams were in danger of collapsing.

In 2001, Canadian research firm Klohn Crippen – hired by Marcopper’s Canadian mother company Placer Dome Inc. as consultant – issued a similar warning.

“They are a clear and present danger to us,” said Joven Lilles of the dams. Lilles is the provincial government’s environmental management specialist and is part of the province’s disaster management council.

Catherine Coumans, research and Asia-Pacific program coordinator of Mining Watch Canada told Vera Files in an email that a lot of mine waste remains at the mine site. Marcopper started operations on Marinduque in 1969.

“The acute danger is being swept away by the waste and drowning in it,” said Coumans, who had lived on the island for two years before the 1996 mine spill.

“The longer-term harm is from the toxicity of the waste,” Coumans said of the highly acidic and metal-laden tailings. “It is extremely environmentally toxic and can destroy productive ecosystems that people rely on.”

The last known inspection of the Marcopper property was done on January 23, 2017 by the office of Marinduque Representative Lord Allan Jay Velasco, together with engineers and geologists of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and Mines and Geosciences Bureau’s regional office.

The team discovered a leak in the Upper Makulapnit Dam and heavy siltation in the Maguila-guila spillway tunnel. That prompted Velasco to ask the MGB to regularly inspect structures within the Marcopper site, a task that’s not easy because the area is off-limits. But the MGB and provincial officials, managed to find ways to get information.

The Velasco briefing paper listed among MGB’s concerns:
- “possible seepage” from the Tapian Pit observed at the Lower Makulapnit Dam.

- monitored seepage in Hinapulan Creek from the plug installed after the 1996 mine spill. “The bright blue discoloration can be attributed to the presence of heavy metal, particularly copper, in the water.”

- The Makulapnit Bypass Tunnel was described as a “problematic MMC structure.” Fresh water was leaking from a busted pipe and a build-up of water inside the tunnel “might lead to an eventual flooding of downstream communities along Boac River.”

But what “needs the most immediate attention,” the MGB team said, is the Maguila-guila siltation dam as also pointed out by the USGS and KhlonCrippen reports 20 years ago.

“Since the water flowing through the spillway has no viable exit point due to the siltation clog, there is a possibility that the water pressure will build up and force its way out through the existing structures, causing damage to the latter,” the briefing paper said.

After its last visit to the MMC premises, the MGB team found out water has decreased to ground level. “However, there is still an increased amount of siltation inside the facility which may clog the hole of the down-drain tunnel,” the briefing paper added.

In 1990, residents of Mogpog town, comprised of 13 villages, had opposed the building of the Maguila-guila dam, but Marcopper was allowed to construct it the next year. The dam was needed as another repository for the San Antonio pit’s waste which the Tapian pit would not be able to hold.

Marcopper denied responsibility when the Maguila-guila dam burst in 1993. Mining officials blamed an unusual rainfall brought by a typhoon. But the Velasco paper noted that when the dam was rebuilt, “an overflow was added for the first time, in an implicit acknowledgment of faulty engineering.”

Repairing dams, tricky ownership issues

MGB’s regional director Roland de Jesus said his office plans to secure the dams and waterways near the mining site. However, the safety features, estimated to cost some P25 million, will be built outside the Marcopper property because “legalities” prevent even government officials from entering the site.

De Jesus said P5 million has been earmarked for the safety measures’ design. With no project bidder, the MGB initiated a negotiated one “to start the ball rolling.”

“There’s a continuous monitoring being done in the area. There’s sufficient time to install the prevention design,” De Jesus said.

But who is really responsible for the dams’ repair?

“This question is critically important,” Coumans said.

It leads to the complicated and tricky ownership of the Marcopper mining site, the structures inside it, and everything left behind by MMC and Placer Dome, Inc., and Placer Dome Technical Services Inc., a subsidiary set up by Placer Dome in 1997 to clean up the mine spill.

Placer Dome, Inc. owned 40 percent of Marcopper shares but divested from it a year after the mine spill. Five years later, it closed its Philippine office. In 2006, the Toronto-based Barrick Gold Corporation, the world’s largest gold mining company, acquired Placer Dome, Inc.’s remaining common shares.

Coumans said Placer Dome divested to F Holdings, known as the Bernardino Group, “through its wholly-owned Cayman Islands subsidiary—MR Holdings.”

The Supreme Court, in a 2012 ruling, described MR Holdings, Ltd. as “a non-resident foreign corporation, organized and existing under the laws of Cayman Island.”

“It is a subsidiary corporation of Placer Dome, Inc. (Placer Dome), a foreign corporation which owns 40% of respondent Marcopper Mining Corporation,” it said.

Coumans said she would have been unaware that MR Holdings was exercising ownership over the Marcopper property “if not for the lawsuit by the Solid Bank to recover money it had lent Marcopper before the Boac Spill.”

She said MR Holdings, possibly still the legal owner of assets and mineral rights at the site, has not maintained the area and neither has F Holdings.

“Unless Marinduqueños find a way to hold MR Holdings’ parent company, now presumably Barrick Gold, to account, the state will likely have to step in to maintain the mine structures in order to protect Marinduqueños,” she added.

Ghost town

More often than not, it is difficult to enter Marcopper’s abandoned mine site. Provincial officers like Lilles had been denied entry several times. Even then Environment Secretary Gina Lopez was said to not have been allowed to inspect the area.

But there was no guard in sight when Vera Files went there one afternoon in February. The guide surmised the guards may have skipped work that day.

The area looked like a ghost town. The power lines had collapsed, the wires a tangled mess on the ground. The doors of a warehouse, a backhoe, a couple of vehicles, even the crushing machinery were decaying and rusty. “MR Holdings” was painted on the primary crusher.

In its heyday, the Marcopper site was like a “city within the forest” with first class apartments and amenities, including a golf course, the guide said. No trace of that upscale community remains.

From a hill, Tapian and San Antonio pits looked like serene lakes surrounded by lush trees.

But Coumans cautioned that the bluish green water is highly toxic. “The pit water will be acidic and the strange color in the shallower areas is metal leaching, likely copper sulphate,” she said.

Heavily silted with mine tailings, Boac and Mogpog rivers are both considered biologically dead. Lilles said no carabao drinks water from Mogpog river because of its high acidity. Even the coconut trees along Mogpog river have been slowly poisoned, dying one by one.

Boac river is less acidic because of the mix of “mineral and criminal water” that it gets from two different tributaries.

“The mineral, or clean, water comes from its upper tributaries in the villages of Canat, Bayote, and Tambunan. The criminal water is from Upper Hinapulan and Makulapnit, and the Bol river, all of which have been contaminated by the mine tailings,” Lilles said.

(With contributions by Nancy Carvajal)

(This story is produced by VERA Files under a project supported by the Internews’ Earth Journalism Network, which aims to empower journalists from developing countries to cover the environment more effectively. VERA Files is published by veteran Filipino journalists taking a deeper look into current Philippine issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”)

The Marcopper disaster: A tragedy that continues in people’s veins

Nikko Dizon

3 April 2019

(Last of two parts)

Heavy metal runs through Racquel Logatoc’s veins. The 52-year-old village chief of Bocboc, Marinduque suffers from skin irritation, fatigue and body pains. Tests done in 2013 and 2017 detected the harmful substance in her blood. In February, she was back at the Batangas Medical Center for further monitoring.

Logatoc is not alone. Like her, adults and children in Mogpog, Boac, and Sta. Cruz towns of Marinduque, still live with the effects of the disaster that happened 23 years ago.

On March 24, 1996, a fracture in the drainage tunnel of Marcopper Mining Corporation’s Tapian pit spilled more than 1.6 million cubic meters of toxic mine tailings, flooding villages and poisoning the Boac River.

Three years before that, the company’s Maguila-guila siltation dam also burst, flooding the town of Mogpog, where two children drowned in the mine waste. It was a tragedy overshadowed by the Tapian pit mine spill but the mine waste from Maguila-guila was just as toxic that it was an environmental disaster on its own, primarily killing the Mogpog river.

“We used to swim in the river, wash our clothes there, and we even caught shrimps and fishes. The river was wide, and the water was clear and clean,” Logatoc said, sadly looking at what was left of the river.

But even decades before the 1996 mine spill, Marinduque residents have been living amid toxic elements from the mine.

Marcopper Mining Corp. began its mining operations in the Mt. Tapian ore deposit in 1969.

It was the first to use open pit mining in copper concentrate production, according to a briefing paper prepared by Marinduque Representative Lord Allan Jay Velasco.

“Without a proper method of waste disposal, the mine tailings or the waste from Mt. Tapian site were discharged into the Calancan Bay which covered around 8,000 hectares of fishing ground,” it said.

“From 1975 to 1991, the Marcopper-operated mines dumped a total of 200 million tons of toxic tailings into the shallow bay of Calancan,” the paper added.

After depleting Mt. Tapian’s reserve, Marcopper moved to the San Antonio copper mine, three kilometers north of the Mt. Tapian site.

Marcopper claimed the mine tailings that seeped out of the Tapian pit were non-toxic. But Joven Lilles, the province’s environment specialist and one of the first provincial employees to rush to the site when the spillage happened, recalled the stench that could only come from harmful chemicals.

Then and now, a number of residents like Logatoc have suffered from various ailments that doctors attribute to exposure to their toxic environment.

Doctors’ initiatives

Mogpog municipal health officer Dr. Edsel Muhi, an epidemiologist, did a study in 2011 under the Department of Health that established a baseline reference for the level of heavy metals in Mogpog, Boac, and Sta. Cruz, the three towns most affected by Marcopper’s mine wastes.

Six heavy metals were found contaminating the environment and which humans can ingest: lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium, copper; and chromium or LAMCCC.

Muhi’s study focused on the non-carcinogenic lead and the cancer-causing arsenic. In 2011, Sta. Cruz residents showed the highest arsenic and lead contents in their blood. Calancan Bay, where Marcopper dumped its mine wastes for nearly 30 yearsof its operation, is in Sta. Cruz.

Children with lead in their blood end up with anemia. The metal also targets their central nervous system. “Lead content can also result in developmental delay and congenital problems,” Muhi, a native of Mogpog, said.

Marinduque provincial health officer, Dr. Gerry Caballes, recalled how in 2016, then DOH regional director Dr. Eduardo Janairo, “revived the Marcopper issue and declared Marinduque as a (health) emergency.”

Janairo convened a regional interagency committee for an environmental health assessment in 2017. The provincial health office, together with toxicologists from the East Avenue Medical Center, tested residents for heavy metal content. That was when Bocboc village chief Logatoc learned the heavy metal in her blood system remains high and that she needed regular monitoring.

In 2017, DOH Marinduque’s chief Rowena Garcia did a study that put together a database of residents living near the rivers affected by the mine tailings.

Garcia also established the “telemedicine” system where patients from Marinduque can consult real time with doctors from EAMC and the Batangas Medical Center through a camera and TV.

Heavy metals irritate the skin, with most patients complaining of itch as well as dark spots and white patches on their legs and feet, said Ash Semilla, a nurse at the DOH-Marinduque health office.

Residents end up with skin diseases because they cross the contaminated rivers.

“That’s the only way they could go to work and return home,” Semilla said. She sends photos of patients’ legs and feet to doctors in Manila or Batangas so they have a background on patients’ cases.

With the telemedicine system, patients can consult doctors, avail of laboratory tests and get free medicines through the DOH, the nurse added.

No rehab for health, environment

Caballes expressed hope the provincial government will continue to support his proposed P20 million water testing laboratory, after years of being told there’s no money for it. A regular monitoring of the 78 water sources in Marinduque was one of Muhi’s recommendations in his 2011 study.

The water testing lab project needs a second bidding after the winning contractor was disqualified, but Caballes had been told the documents for the laboratory “were missing.”

He said doctors will always have their theories on why people get sick, but they need scientific data to back these up.

Caballes wants to investigate if the contaminated environment is linked to the recently monitored clustering of children with delayed development and a number of residents dying of end-stage renal failure.

He said the contaminated environment that has not been rehabilitated remains a threat to residents. Even just regularly breathing air tainted with heavy metals can harm one’s health, experts said.

Law professor Tony La Viña, an environment undersecretary when the 1996 mine spill happened, admitted the national government at that time was too focused on holding Marcopper accountable that it failed to put together a “masterplan to rehabilitate the environment and give livelihood to the people.”

“We didn’t have a systematic approach to really help the affected people in the affected communities,” Caballes said. “We shouldn’t just have made noise. We should also have done something using whatever resources we had then and now.”

At the very least, Marinduque has placed a 50-year moratorium on large- and small-scale mining in the province.

No money for rehab

Caballes and Lilles both pointed out that the national and local governments have said there was not enough money to address the mine spill’s harm to the environment and the people.

While the then Ramos administration commissioned the US Geological Survey study, government was unable to implement the USGS’ detailed recommendations due to lack of funds, Lilles said.

Catherine Coumans, research and Asia-Pacific program coordinator of Mining Watch Canada who had lived in Marinduque before the mine spill, said the worst environmental impact from Marcopper’s mining comes from the mine sites yet to be rehabilitated.

She said the San Antonio pit has been filled up and overtopped with toxic water. The remaining mine wastes of both the San Antonio and Tapian mines are “exposed and contained—in Calancan Bay—where more than 200 million tons of mine waste have destroyed reefs and continue to erode off the causeway in an ongoing slow spill into the ocean.”

“The Mogpog and Boac rivers remain impacted by ongoing toxic inputs from the mine site. These four ecosystems constitute major harm to the small island province as a whole,” Coumans said.

Twenty-three years and counting

In 2014, the Marinduque provincial government had refused Barrick Gold’s $20 million settlement offer not only because it was not enough to compensate for the environmental damage caused by the Marcopper mine spill. The company, which acquired the remaining common shares of Placer Dome, also wanted thegovernment to waive its accountability and responsibility for the disaster.

Four criminal cases, a civil case, and an administrative case have been filed by the government against Barrick Gold, Marcopper Mining Corp., and Placer Dome, Inc. and their officers since 1996. The cases remain pending in court.

In 2015, a Nevada court ruled it had no jurisdiction over the class suit filed by the Marinduque provincial office against Placer Dome.

Coumans said the court provided the best possible conditions for the case to succeed in Canada, including that Barrick accept the jurisdiction of Canada and for the case not to be sent elsewhere.

“I believe that Barrick Gold remains legally responsible and can be held to account in Canada if the people of Marinduque choose to pursue that course of action,” she said.

On the 23rd anniversary of the Marcopper mine spill, MGB regional director Roland de Jesus said the government will pursue legal action and would stick to filing a case using the Marcopper name, not the new company name, MR Holdings.

Meanwhile, heavy metals continue their poisonous track in the veins of villagers like Logatoc and Marinduque’s future – its children. (With contributions by Nancy Carvajal.)

This story is produced by VERA Files under a project supported by the Internews’ Earth Journalism Network, which aims to empower journalists from developing countries to cover the environment more effectively. )


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