MAC: Mines and Communities

Mining firm gets nod from DENR

Published by MAC on 2006-06-14
Source: The Philippine Star ()

Mining firm gets nod from DENR

By Katherine Adraneda, The Philippine Star

14th June 2006

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) allowed yesterday the P1.4-billion Rapu-Rapu polymetallic project of Lafayette Phils. in Albay to resume operations, ending months of speculation about the fate of the Australian mining company.

DENR Secretary Angelo Reyes said Lafayette will have to prove it can comply with environmental standards within a 30-day trial period.

The mining company will first have to pay a P10.4-million fine, extend a surety bond and implement more "environmental safeguards," Reyes said, as he blamed the company for mine spills last year that prompted the government to suspend its operations.

Reyes explained the 30-day test run will "determine the overall environmental soundness of its mining operation in Rapu-Rapu (island)... as well as the adequacy of measures it has put in place to prevent a repeat of the two wastewater spills last October."

During the 30-day test run, Lafayette will have to determine the production efficiency of the base metal plant in processing copper and zinc; the sufficiency and adequacy of its remedial measures and environmental safeguards; and the receptivity of the mine facility's emergency response.

"Taking into consideration all the facts and findings, and all the opinions expressed on the various issues, DENR feels that the best option to take is to allow Lafayette to resume operations subject to certain stringent preconditions," Reyes said.

If the company complies with all the requirements during the 30-day trial run, Reyes said a final lifting order shall be issued to Lafayette allowing it to resume full operations.

"It is the DENR's considered judgment that this option will be the best for all concerned, particularly for the Rapu-Rapu community," Reyes said.

He said Lafayette should do away with its open mine pit operations since these are "not an attractive proposition (and) will simply cause small miners to descend on the area and... operate without environmental safeguards and safety measures."

Opportunity

Malacañang supported Reyes in his decision to allow Lafayette to resume operations, albeit temporarily.

"Secretary Reyes enjoys the confidence of the President so he is given the leeway to do what he thinks is best," Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said. "So this margin is within his prerogative.

Lawmakers also supported Reyes and his decision to allow Lafayette to continue its mining operations.

"Mining, done right, has made many countries prosperous. I see no reason why the same cannot happen in the Philippines, more so since we have the most under-tapped mineral resources in the world," Camarines Sur Rep. Arnulfo Fuentebella said.

He said the DENR should now make sure that environmental concerns raised by local leaders are addressed and that Lafayette comply with the strictest environmental standards.

On Lafayette's part, it will try to win back the support of the local community, especially in the face of two wastewater spills in Rapu-Rapu last year, the Bicol lawmaker added.

Fuentebella said the test run would afford Lafayette the "opportunity to prove that it adheres to environmentally sound mining practices."

"It is a 'shape up or ship out' situation for Lafayette, no question about that," he said.

For his part, Parañaque City Rep. Eduardo Zialcita said the DENR should make sure that the company observes all the required guidelines for environmental protection.

"The DENR decision gives the right signal to foreign and local investors that our government will adhere strictly to the rule of law governing mining activities," Zialcita said.

Lafayette Philippines spokesman Julito Sarmiento said in a television interview that the company welcomed the DENR's decision, adding they would comply with the preconditions immediately and could be ready for the test run by July.

"We want this test run very much because this allows us to prove to everybody... that the management of this company is a very responsible management," he said.

A company statement, however, claimed that "we still have to study and clarify some of the conditions so we will be properly guided on how to comply with them."

"We are confident that our remedial measures will pass all tests. After this, we shall seek permission to resume full operations," the company statement said.

Acid Test

Operations at Rapu-Rapu island off Albay, have been suspended for seven months following a spill at its mill site on Oct. 11, 2005 and on its tailings dam on Oct. 31, 2005.

Leftist and environmental groups had called for a closure of the mine and repeal of the Mining Act of 1995 which liberalized the mining industry to foreign firms.

The incident has become a test case of President Arroyo's commitment to mining investments, as well as enforcement of environmental safeguards.

Mrs. Arroyo formed the Rapu-Rapu Fact Finding Commission (RRFFC) headed by Sorsogon Bishop Arturo Bastes to look into allegations that Lafayette was violating the terms of its mining permit.

The RRFFC submitted its 169-page report before the President last month, recommending the closure of the mining firm, a blanket ban on mining in the country and a review of the Mining Act of 1995.

Lafayette and mining experts slammed the report, claiming the RRFFC made the recommendations without any scientific basis and even went beyond its mandate in recommending a total mining ban.

Reyes, on the other hand, blamed Lafayette for "operational, technical and management lapses," charging that "the company's project still has to measure up to the standards of responsible mining."

Reyes stressed the test-run would be "an acid test," of the company, adding that it would be subject to "microscopic scrutiny" and would be "open to the public and third-party experts."

"We have always admitted in public the lapses that resulted in the mine incidents last October and even reported these to the proper authorities. There was never a moment or an effort to hide them," Lafayette said.

Rapu-Rapu is expected to produce copper, gold, silver and zinc valued at $350 million over six years. It employs around 900 workers.

The company previously said it had complied with 21 conditions imposed by the DENR to allow the reopening of the mine.

Treason

Following the decision, environmentalists and anti-mining groups raised a howl of protest and accused Reyes and the government of "environmental treason of the highest order."

"We are appalled by the decision of DENR Secretary Angelo Reyes... it is environmental treason of the highest order. It sacrifices the health and welfare of our people for the interest of foreign mining companies," said Trixie Concepcion, spokesperson for the group Defend Patrimony.

International environment group Greenpeace added Lafayette will seriously damage Rapu-Rapu and its surrounding fragile marine ecosystem since its toxic tailings and the inevitable acid mine drainage will continue to pollute the seas.

"This lamentable decision is a virtual admission on the part of the government that long-term damage to the environment and to the marine ecosystem is a justifiable cost of doing business," said Beau Baconguis, Greenpeace Southeast Asia toxic campaigner.

"It flies in the face of the DENR's own powerlessness and inability to protect the interest of the public especially when disaster attends such mining operations," Baconguis said.

Anti-mining groups based in the Bicol region also expressed their protest over the DENR's decision.

Jun dela Torre, of the Legazpi urban poor organization, said anti-mining advocates had formed a new group, Save Rapu-Rapu Alliance (SARA), to lead protest rallies against the resumption of mining activities in Rapu-Rapu.

Dela Torre lamented the efforts of the government to form the RRFFC only to reject its findings and allow the Australian mining firm to operate again.

"We are condemning in the highest degree the Arroyo administration for this decision to resume the mining activities in Rapu-Rapu," Dela Torre said.

Dela Torre led the group in supporting the recommendations of RRFFC for a review of the mining law that allows foreigners to own mining firms in our country.

Sen. Pia Cayetano, on the other hand, declared that there may be no need to repeal the mining law as proposed by some sectors.

During the initial hearing on the issue at the Senate, Cayetano pointed out the general parameters for mining are already present under the present law.

"We have a basic law that provides the general parameters for mining but we have a big problem with (its) implementation," she said.

Cayetano, chairperson of the Senate committee on environment and natural resources, admitted there are still issues that need to be addressed in terms of protecting the environment and communities.

"There are still gaps in the provisions that ensure that adequate measures are in place to secure the health and ensure that the environment is not damaged beyond the damage that naturally occurs with mining," she said.

The Senate committee is conducting a hearing on the separate bills filed by Senators Jamby Madrigal and Sergio Osmeña III calling for the repeal of the Mining Act. - With Rocel Felix, Paolo Romero, Jess Diaz, Marvin Sy, Cet Dematera, AFP

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