MAC: Mines and Communities

The Tragedy Of Mining In Rapu-rapu Island Ecosystem, Albay Province

Published by MAC on 2007-07-23
Source: Catholic Bishops Conference of the Phili ()

The Tragedy Of Mining In Rapu-Rapu Island Ecosystem, Albay province

By Emelina G Regis , Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) Monitor , Vol. 11 N°.15

July 23 - August 5, 2007

THE mining industry in the Philippines has always been a boom economy. It provides livelihood in terms of labour especially in remote areas where majority of the people lacks the necessary skills and knowledge to be employed in more challenging jobs. Thus, the influx of migrant workers creates short-term business opportunities for the local economy.

The trade-offs however are deforestation, pollution of land and water bodies, fish-kills and other associated impacts. Yet, mining small islands surrounded by corals reefs is a graver crime to humanity. Islands are fragile ecosystems because their survival hangs on maintaining a critical balance of ecological sustainability. They are also the last frontiers of sustainable fishery because of their distance from the mainland that are already suffering from siltation and pollution from human activities.

On July 2005, Lafayette Philippines, Inc. started mining in Rapu-Rapu, a small island facing the Pacific at the eastern boundary of the province of Albay , Philippines . It is a domestic subsidiary of Lafayette Mining Ltd. of Australia , the true owners of the mine in Rapu-Rapu. Within barely four months of operation, Lafayette however caused cyanide spill and fish kills in October 11 and 31, 2005. The result was devastating. For months, it paralyzed the livelihood of predominantly poor local communities in Rapu-Rapu and Sorsogon in fishing and tourism. Protests were launched by affected groups and those sympathetic to the communities of Rapu-Rapu and Sorsogon, especially because of the multiplier effects that also impacted other communities dependent on fishing.

Lafayette denied the fish-kill. Mines Geosciences Bureau (MGB) supported it with a report that only 2-15 kilos of dead fish were collected at the outfall of the river/creeks, further exonerating Lafayette from the blame. The report of the Pollution Adjudication Board (P AB) in 2005 however showed cyanide levels in water of the affected creeks and siltation ponds, exceeding the standard of 0.05 parts per million (ppm) up to 36,000 times. In fact, this was the reason why PAB slapped more than Pl0 million fine to Lafayette for violating the Clean Water Act.

Opposing forces of denial on one side and accusations from the other, prompted Most Reverend Arturo Bastes, SVD, DD, Bishop of the Diocese of Sorsogon, Southern Luzon , to bring the matter to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Hence, the Rapu-Rapu Fact-Finding Commission (RRFFC) was created with His Grace as chair. Various investigations made by the commission, especially on the engineers and workers of Lafayette, and residents who actually witnessed the incident, including the reports of the Environmental , Management Bureau (EMB) and the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB), revealed the following: the two incidents of tailings spill caused the health and environmental hazards in Rapu-Rapu and coastal communities of Sorsogon (RRFFC 2006).

In the case of Sorsogon, this province is only 12 kilometres from the mining site in Rapu-Rapu and during the time of the spill, the northeast monsoon (or amihan) was the prevailing wind that pushed the surface waves from Rapu-Rapu to Sorsogon. Thus, it is more likely that the fishes died at sea, floated with the waves towards Sorsogon and along the way, the cyanide-laced silt (probably also contaminated with heavy metals) continue to kill fishes. The northeast monsoon and rainy season are major factors that affected Sorsogon and will always affect the same areas while mining continue to operate for years to come and beyond.

Nevertheless, after several months of test run, the mining company was allowed to resume operation by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). The bases for this decision were the reports from the DENR and the MGB, the latter was backed by a report from Dr. Carlos Primo David and Rustica Romero (2006). Those reports however, were insufficient as bases for lifting the suspension order to the mining operation of Lafayette .

For instance, aside from the admission on the part of the DENR, "of serious lapses in their judgments", most remedial measures focused only on the physical and economic solutions such as,
1. preventing polluted water from affecting the processing plant and creeks by using sandbags to hold back the silt and water;
2. financial compensation and tax incentives to solve economic losses by fishermen and as solution to the environmental problems resulting from the destruction of an island;
3. self monitoring which is the most ridiculous requirement of the DENR since mining projects are proven to create quite a number of environmental problems. In this requirement, the mining company simply informs the concerned government agencies of leaks, broken pipes and the like during their operations, after which, the same agencies can now respond.

On the "MGB Evaluation Report on the Rapu-Rapu Polymetallic project under the test run conditions", these are:
1. That small-scale miners will take opportunity to do mining if Lafayette leaves - since 1976; no one in the island tried to mine the abandoned Hixbar mine because people are afraid of the acidic water due to its obnoxious smell, the red river's water is "itchy and seems to eat their foot" (interview by INECAR, 2000);
2. All solutions are concerned only with structural stability of their infrastructure;
3. No solution was given to what will happen to the heavy metals that will remain in the various ponds. Metals do not disappear even if the acid water has been neutralized;
4. the monitoring of the evaluation made by the DENR and the Multipartite Monitoring Team (MMT) were only concerned about water testing and leaks, and does not include heavy metal contamination of soil/ sediments and biota that absorb/ absorb the contaminants, thus, the assessments are very much inadequate to guarantee mining " safe" mining technology;
5. with regards to dead marine organisms found along the shore during test run the solution was only "to monitor heavy metals in water until the condition became normal". Nonetheless, "normal condition of pH" by DENR standard was achieved by lime dosing (David & Romero, 2006). Lime dosing of water however only neutralizes the acidity but heavy metals do not disappear

It is in this regard that the kind Bishop Arturo Bastes of Sorsogon organized two important gatherings of church groups, NGOs, POs, LGUs, former members of the Rapu-Rapu Fact-Finding Commission (RRFFC), provincial officers and academe on May 10 and June 6, 2007. The latter was attended by foreign nationals, delegates of the "Development and Peace", a Catholic Organization of Canada. The purpose of the gathering was to discuss urgent concerns specifically on the Permanent Lifting Order (PLO) granted to Lafayette .

The current problem of Lafayette mining can never be blamed on the weather because this company and concerned government agencies were forewarned since year 2000, after a first study of the Institute for Environmental Conservation and Research (INECAR) of Ateneo de Naga University. The study recommended a "No mining in Rapu-Rapu". It was conducted because the former Bishop of Legazpi, Most Rev. Jose Sorra, DD and current Auxiliary Bishop, Most Rev. Lucilo Quiambao, requested for assistance from the Ateneo de Naga University President, Fr. Joel E. Tabora, SJ. The good Bishops and the priests of Sta. Florentina Parish of Rapu-Rapu, wanted to be clarified about the impacts of a mining project in the said island. The results of the study showed elevated levels of arsenic, cadmium and lead in the soil and water affected by past mining activities. Several reasons to support the "no mining" stand were also generated from the study. These are:

The geophysico-chemical nature of the island of Rapu-Rapu ; -
1. island ecosystem with steel slopes that cause water and soil to easily move down to the sea and coral reefs; 2) Type II climate described by the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) as having no dry season, and rainy most times of the year, a condition that hastens movement of materials to the sea;
2. Typhoon path that disperses material to a wider area, and
3. the more problematic iron sulphide rocks that contain the precious ores, yet naturally generate! Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) that dissolves toxic metals from the ores.

Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) is naturally occurring phenomenon whereby as soon as iron sulphide rocks are exposed to oxygen in the air, and water from humid environment, a chemical reaction follows producing sulphuric acid and red iron precipitate that coats rocks and sediments. It is almost as if, a crystal clear, sparkling river suddenly turns into a red river that emits foul smell with acidic water that is itchy to touch where many people in mining communities describe the experience as "eating their foot". One can imagine a bleeding island where blood, laden with toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, zinc, including gold, silver, and others, flows out to other water bodies and surrounding land and sea.

Economic reasons - mining destroyed the major sources of livelihood (fishing and agriculture) of the local communities. It has brought economic difficulties to the people of Rapu-Rapu and Sorsogon. Based on published literature, the effects of cyanide, silt and heavy metals are devastating. Cyanide immediately kills fishes and other aquatic organisms. Silt injures the gills of fishes, eventually suffocating them and finally killing them. Heavy metals in turn are toxic to fishes and other marine life. Elevated levels of copper for instance also cause immediate deaths. It may also accumulate to a critical concentration before death of the organism follows. All heavy metals are toxic, at chronic level (small amount accumulating from long time exposure), are teratogenic (cause birth defects), mutagenic (mutation of some parts of the body), and carcinogenic (causes cancer of various parts of the organism's body).

In a recent study made by Regis and Alto (2006) of INECAR, just after the Lafayette mine spill incidents, evidences of pollution on land through the high levels of arsenic (23.2 to 35 mg/kg) and cadmium (6.3 to 10.9 mg/kg), and very high levels of copper (400 to 990 mg/kg) were measured in the soil/sediments collected from the river banks of the two rivers /creeks that pass by the mining site. The maximum tolerable contents are only 20 mg/kg, 3 mg/kg, and 100 mg/kg respectively. Copper also increases towards the shore while arsenic and cadmium tend to concentrate more at the outlet.

Heavy metals also impacted marine and terrestrial plants through the destruction of their cells or the disappearance of starch in the chloroplasts inside the leaves. Examples are the grass bio indicator, Cyperus Kyllingia and Digitaria Ciliaris. Thus, no food is produced consequently affecting health and growth of dependent animals in the process of eating and being eaten along the food chain. Some plants accumulate heavy metals in their bodies, yet the effects are not manifested externally. This is the danger of heavy metal pollution. Without warning, their levels in the body of living organisms can increase dramatically.

Health reasons – In humans, the damaging effects of heavy metals are all forms of cancer, growth reduction, mental retardation, damage to the nervous system, hearing impairment, muscular instability, adverse effects on the digestive, excretory, reproductive, immune and cardiovascular (heart-blood) systems, lung problems, that eventually would also lead to death. But before death occurs, the person suffers disability, unable to live a productive life, burdening the family, and causing poverty.

Biodiversity reasons - Rapu-Rapu is within the marine conservation priority areas, and classified as extremely high priority (Ong et al.2002). There are still undiscovered species of plants and animals unique to island ecosystems like Rapu-Rapu including marine species. Their genetic wealth is important to medicine, industry and improvement of crops to sustain the developing economy of our country. We are responsible for taking care of these natural resources and ensure that they continue to survive for generations to come.

Currently, Bishop Arturo Bastes of Sorsogon is at the forefront of the advocacy against mining in Rapu-Rapu. This was a response to the environmental problems that were experienced and probably is presently happening, and could be repeated in the coastal areas of Sorsogon, while mining in Rapu-Rapu continue operating. As in Rapu-Rapu, Sorsogon is also a primary impact area due to the fact that cyanide, contaminated silt and heavy metals come directly from the spill of the Lafayette mining operation in the Island of Rapu-Rapu.

It is sad that in the midst of unsolved problems of mining in Rapu-Rapu, the government continues to invite foreign mining companies to mine many areas in the Philippines . What is further heartbreaking is the fact that these foreign companies, such as Lafayette Mining Ltd. of Australia , come from rich countries, yet their own government would tolerate their mining, causing destruction of large areas of productive land and sea in a poor country and results to further destruction and poverty.

Mining is not only a political issue in the Philippines because it causes the destruction of the major economic base of a poor country. People depend on agriculture and fisheries that are sustainable and could sustain generations of people from all walks of life in spite of typhoons, earthquakes, including human induced disasters. In the end, the issue is moral, which is greed. Its perpetuation is ultimately an issue on justice for peace loving people living in separate islands but linked with a simple trust to a loving God.

(Emelina G: Regis, PH.D., is the Director of INECAR, Ateneo de Naga University)

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