MAC: Mines and Communities

Bad mining image traced to spills

Published by MAC on 2006-11-20

Bad mining image traced to spills

By Vincent Cabreza, Inquirer

20th November 2006

BAGUIO CITY -- The president of the firm operating the Rapu Rapu mine in Albay province took the blame for the bad publicity and investment crisis haunting the mining industry.

During the 53rd Mine Safety and Environment Conference here on Friday, Manuel Agcaoili, president of the Rapu Rapu Processing Inc. and board director of Lafayette Philippines Inc., said the two tailings dam spills that occurred in October 2005 at the island's polymetallic mine site was the reason for the anti-mining backlash.

The most immediate reaction came from foreign investors, he said. "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," Agcaoili said.

He said his firm now has the burden of helping reverse the industry's negative reputation. The Lafayette Mining Limited of Australia owns the Rapu Rapu island mine.

Agcaoili said the accidents were caused by bad managerial decisions and flawed engineering design.

He said company and government 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 Oct. 11, 2005.

He said the firm was forced to discharge mine tailings again 20 days later when heavy rains caused water levels to exceed the tailings dam height.

"It was a case of damn-if-you-do, damn-if-you don't," Agcaoili said, because floods would have destroyed the dam had the firm not eased the pressure on the facility.

In a prepared speech on Friday, Environment Secretary Angelo Reyes said "mining has had problems in finding a place in the vision of sustainable development, given the reality of non-renewable resources."

"The general perception is, once extracted, minerals are gone... Add to the equation that mining has a poor public image and is facing social opposition," he said.

"The image of abandoned mines, tailings dams, waste dumps and ghost communities is imprinted on the minds of many," he said.

Agcaoili said the Rapu Rapu incidents were preventable because some company officials had overlooked valuable engineering data about the Albay environment and climate.

He said the Rapu Rapu operations were managed remotely from Australia. Local company officials relied on these decisions and had lost the initiative to troubleshoot the island mine's problems, he said.

The accidents forced the firm to shut down. "However, to be honest about it, [more things] went wrong. A fish kill [episode] followed and [fishing communities] took a beating. Rapu Rapu became media fodder... and [anti-mining] advocates found new ammunition [against us]," Agcaoili said.

He said the old managers aggravated the situation by keeping silent at the height of the controversy.

He said a new management team appointed to Rapu Rapu in January is now in place to "work for the survival of Philippine mining."

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