MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Rapu-Rapu, make or break for mining

Published by MAC on 2006-11-22

Rapu-Rapu, make or break for mining

BIG DEAL, By DAN MARIANO, Manila Times

22nd November 2006

Mining boosters insist Filipinos are squandering valuable opportunities for sustainable development by giving companies engaged in this highly controversial extractive industry a hard time.

Litigation and street protests merely stall the discovery of the wealth lying beneath our feet, they say. What fools Filipinos are for passing up this chance at progress!

What the boosters-mostly foreign consultants of multinationals who have somehow established a foothold in the news media-fail to confirm is the sustainability of economic growth from mining, especially as it is being practiced in this country.

Sure, there's gold-aside from copper, iron, zinc etc.-in them there hills, but who is going to profit from them and for how long?

Numerous are the examples of communities, both here and abroad, where mining once thrived but have since reverted to backwardness after the mining companies exhausted the minerals in their areas. Worse, all they were left with are soil and water permanently poisoned by mining chemicals.

True, state of the art technology is already available in order to minimize the environmental damage caused by mining. However, there is little evidence that mining operations in the Philippines now employ such techniques and know-how.

A little over a year ago, for instance, the mining operations of the Rapu-Rapu Polymetallic Project (RPP) of the Australian-owned Lafayette Philippines Inc. (LPI) were suspended after toxic waste spilled from its mine tailings dam, not once, but twice.

Operating in over 400 hectares covering three seaside villages on the island municipality of Rapu-Rapu in Albay province, RPP proved to be a curse rather than a blessing to the islanders, mostly fishermen. The oil spills resulted in a massive fish kill, which robbed the villagers of their livelihood.

Aside from suspending RPP's operations, all that the Department of Environment and Natural Resources imposed on Lafayette by way of penalty was a measly P10.7-million fine.

The incident drew howls of protest from various quarters-including Church leaders and Rep. Joey Salceda of Albay, one of President Arroyo's economic advisers. Interestingly, other lawmakers from Bicol kept quiet.

Lafayette may have thought itself lucky after it got away with a veritable slap on the wrist from Philippine authorities. But it soon suffered a far more severe punishment at the hands of foreign investors who quickly shied away from the Rapu-Rapu project.

Last weekend a ranking Lafayette executive acknowledged that the backlash overseas was what hurt the company most.

A report by Vincent Cabrera of the Inquirer news service quoted Manuel Agcaoili, president of Rapu-Rapu Processing Inc. and a board director of LPI, saying: "The bad news [got reported] and foreign investment interest trickled to a halt.

Investors adopted a wait-and-see attitude. Nobody knew how events would unfold." Speaking at the 53rd Mine Safety and Environment Conference in Baguio City last Friday, Agcaoili reportedly said Lafayette must carry "the burden of helping reverse the industry's negative reputation."

He reportedly admitted that the accidents at Rapu-Rapu "were caused by bad managerial decisions and flawed engineering design."

According to Cabrera's report, as posted Monday on the INQ7.net website, Agcaoili said Lafayette and DENR experts had concluded that deficiencies in the design of a discharge pond caused it to expel 20 cubic meters of mine waste effluents into Albay's waters on October 11 last year.

He reportedly added that the company was forced to discharge mine tailings again 20 days later when heavy rains caused water levels to exceed the height of the tailings dam.

Agcaoili said the Rapu-Rapu spills could have been prevented had not company officials overlooked engineering data about the environment and climate in Albay province.

He said the Rapu-Rapu operations were managed via remote control from Australia. Local company officials relied on these decisions and had lost the initiative to troubleshoot the island mine's problems, Agcaoili was quoted saying.

In what sounded like an admission of corporate liability, Agcaoili reportedly said a new management team was installed at Rapu-Rapu last January to "work for the survival of Philippine mining."

Now, confession is good for the soul. However, Lafayette sounded like it was more sorry for failing to cash in on its Rapu-Rapu project than for the environmental destruction its mining operations have caused.

Instead of heeding widespread calls to shut down the Rapu-Rapu mining operations, the government ordered the project's suspension. In July the order was lifted, and RPP was allowed to go on a 30-day test run.

The test run was supposed to determine if Lafayette had corrected its toxic waste handling facilities, prior to the resumption of normal operations.

After evaluating the results of the test-run, however, the DENR pollution adjudication board decided to extend the trial period by 60 more days. The second test run is due to end December 8.

While the second test run is being closely monitored by the government and Rapu-Rapu residents, what apparently worries Lafayette most is the reaction of its prospective investors overseas.

Rapu-Rapu has become a make or break case, not just for Lafayette, but also for the entire mining industry in the Philippines.

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