MAC: Mines and Communities

Philippines: 12 Years After Mining Disaster Chronic Illnesses on the Rise in Marcopper Towns

Published by MAC on 2008-11-17
Source: Karol Anne M. Ilagan, A PCIJ Investigation (2008-11-03)

Twelve years after a major mining catastrophe there, toxic mine wastes still choke key waterways in Marinduque. The threat of more mine tailings pouring into Boac and Mogpog rivers and Calancan Bay also remains, as abandoned mine structures are in need of repairs. Despite these, there is renewed talk of opening up the province to mining again, upsetting many locals and concerned organizations.

This two-part investigative report revisits the site of what is still regarded as the country's worst mining disaster, along with two other towns that had been most affected by the activities of the Marcopper Mining Corporation. The series details the health hazards posed by the abandoned mine wastes, and notes the lack of health personnel who could respond to the rising health needs of the affected communities. Already, medical experts have observed an increase in cases of diabetes, goiter, renal disease, spontaneous abortion, and even cancer in at least three towns in Marinduque.

With the Arroyo government's aggressive marketing of the Philippines as a mining country, many fear that the Marinduque experience may serve as a standard in dealing with future mining disasters - with no one behind bars, the mess left behind, and the community virtually abandoned to fend on its own.

BOAC, MOGPOG, AND STA. CRUZ, MARINDUQUE - A neat tapestry of Spanish-style houses, old churches, beaches, and rows of coconut trees that never seem to end characterizes this island province southeast of Manila.

The key word here is "neat." Along the main road that connects all six towns in the island, huts big and small are all tidied up, each yard spic and span. "It's not an order or anything, it's just how things are here," says one resident. "Bakuran mo, linis mo. Ganoon kasimple (Your yard, you clean it up. It's that simple)."

If only cleaning up after mining operations gone terribly wrong were that simple.

In the midst of a global economic slowdown, the Philippine government has turned to reviving the mining industry to help bring in much-needed revenues. But environmentalists have been up in arms not only over the resurgence of what they have described as a very destructive business. Many of them also say that at the very least, national authorities should first help the likes of Marinduque recover from previous mining disasters before opening up other areas for new ventures.

Indeed, 12 years after suffering from what is still by far the country's most serious mining catastrophe, Marinduque has yet to be rid of millions of tons of mine wastes that have choked Boac River. Millions of tons more lie in Mogpog River and Calancan Bay, and there are signs that even more will pour into these waters if some of the abandoned mine's structures are not repaired soon.

It may be impossible for Marinduque to be rid of most of the toxic mine wastes that has become the legacy of Marcopper Mining Corporation in the island. Yet even a promise to rehabilitate Boac River has all been abandoned by Placer Dome, the Canadian mining giant that had a 40-percent share in Marcopper, which extracted copper concentrates, as well as gold and silver ore from Marinduque's Mount Tapian.

Today locals who used to fish for a living in the now-polluted Boac and Mogpog rivers and Calancan Bay have yet to find alternative means of livelihood. Worse, medical professionals have observed an increase in chronic illnesses in people living near the waste sites, leading them to suspect that the toxic mining trash has been silently wreaking havoc on the residents' health.

Provincial health officer Dr. Honesto Marquez, for one, says he has noticed a rise in the number of cases of diabetes, goiter, renal disease, spontaneous abortion, and even cancer particularly in the towns of Sta. Cruz, Mogpog, and Boac. At least three young Sta. Cruz residents, with ages ranging from eight to 19, have also passed away due to illnesses believed to be related to heavy-metal poisoning.

SMOTHERED WATERS

Between 1975 and 1991, Marcopper is estimated to have dumped some 200 million tons of mine waste in Calancan Bay in Sta. Cruz. In 1993, the company's Maguila-guila dam collapsed, filling Mogpog River with silt, essentially killing it. Three years later, Boac had its unfortunate turn to have its river system smothered with three million tons of mine tailings.

The 1996 mining accident in Boac is considered to be the worst in the country's history. But health officials say it is Sta. Cruz that is the most worrisome in terms of the kind and sheer number of illnesses being recorded there.

So much mine waste was dumped into Calancan Bay that a seven-kilometer long and half-kilometer wide land mass was formed there. Called the Calancan causeway by some, it is more commonly known among locals simply as "tambak" or pile.

"People living near Calancan Bay, they have been feeling it, it's just that there was no massive spill unlike Boac," says University of the Philippines National Poison Management and Control Center (UP NPMCC) chief Dr. Lynn Crisanta Panganiban. "It was a slow contamination and low-level exposureŠthrough time."

Before it divested itself of its shares in Marcopper in 1997, Placer Dome spent some $70 million in putting a new plug in Tapian Pit drainage tunnel, building levees on the Boac riverbank, and dredging a channel at the mouth of the river. The amount also covered the construction of new homes, roads, and airlifting of food and other supplies to the devastated area. In addition, Placer Dome paid more than $1 million as compensation to Boac fisherfolk and laundrywomen who could no longer use the river to earn their living.

Placer Dome committed itself to rehabilitating Boac River. But it never admitted responsibility for the contamination of Calancan Bay and the Mogpog River spill. The company also maintained that there were no conclusive studies linking the mine wastes to the diseases plaguing the residents of the affected areas. Barrick Gold Corporation, which bought Placer Dome in 2006, meanwhile says it is not responsible for the problems the latter left behind in the Philippines.

UNEXPLAINED RISE IN CASES OF CERTAIN ILLNESSES

In January 2005, a team from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) submitted to the Marinduque provincial government a commissioned report assessing the environmental and health impact of mining on the island. But the USGS team itself admitted in failing to make a significant scrutiny of the effects of mining on the health of the people, citing unavailable data, confounding variables, and lack of control groups.

"The USGS report was of no use," remarks Mogpog municipal health officer Dr. Edzel Muhi. "They say that the chemicals found in the children are possibly from the paint in houses and the school, but the most families here live only in huts."

As early as March 1998, too, then President Fidel Ramos had declared a state of calamity in four Sta. Cruz barangays near Calancan Bay - Botilao, Ipil, Lusok, and Camandugan - due to the high incidence of heavy-metal poisoning among the children there.

Today the latest official data show that in these same barangays, the prevalence rates of illnesses considered to be symptoms of heavy-metal poisoning far outpace national figures. In fact, the four barangays have influenza and hypertension prevalence rates that are some eight times that at national level - 4,283.96 per 100,000 population for influenza and 4,079.96 for hypertension, compared to the national prevalence rates of 435 and 522.8, respectively.

The barangays also post a high prevalence rate of acute respiratory infection (ARI) and upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) or cough, cold, and fever: 6,813.54 per 100,000 population, or three times more the provincial prevalence rate of 2,104.36. Health officials note as well that the barangays' annual cases of ARI and URTI increased last year to 334, from the average of 258 in the previous five years.

And while the Department of Health (DOH) data do not include allergic dermatitis as one of top causes of diseases in the country, it is very common in the four communities, ranking fifth at a rate of 1,631.98 per 100,000 people.
Dr. Marquez admits that the lack of a medical laboratory in Marinduque has prevented them from identifying precisely whether these diseases are caused primarily or secondarily by heavy metals. "There are plenty of illnesses toxic metals and chemicals can cause," he says. "We can't just pinpoint this out because tests must be done and we don't have the technical capability to do so. But the question is, in the exposed areas, why are these diseases on the rise?"

Panganiban also comments, "It's a natural course for people to get sick. What alarmed the health officials there is that the rates are above the regular prevalence rate."

TOXIC METALS AND CHEMICALS

According to the UP NPMCC, lead, arsenic, cadmium, and zinc are among the toxic substances left behind by Marcopper in Boac and Mogpog rivers and Calancan Bay.

"Metals affect every vital organ you can think of," says Panganiban, a toxicologist. "It could be hematologic, it could affect the nervous, endocrine, renal, and even the reproductive system."

Signs and symptoms of heavy-metal poisoning may range from minor diseases, such as skin rashes, diarrhea, and constipation, to more serious illnesses, like hypertension, blood and pulmonary disorders, and even cancer, mental retardation, or developmental delay.

"The physical properties of chemicals alone may affect the residents," says Panganiban. "Chemicals could get to the body through inhalation, ingestion by eating contaminated seafood, and constant contact."

Not that Sta. Cruz residents are able to get much catch from the bay these days, since mine waste had destroyed some 80 square kilometers of coral reef and seagrass. Says Barangay Ipil local Melissa Mendoza, 50: "Fish catch has really dwindled. Before we used to catch buckets. Now, we can't even catch two kilos overnight."

Wilson Manuba, for his part, says he ignored the cuts made by shellfish on his feet and legs whenever he fished at Calancan Bay. But then he began feeling like his feet were being "pricked by needles" every time he fished in the bay. In 2002, he was diagnosed as having contracted arsenic keratosis and squamous cell carcinoma that necessitated the amputation of his right leg. Now 37, Manuba is about to lose his other leg.

"I have accepted my condition," he says. "I just worry for my children." His eldest son Brian, 12, already has asthma, just like many of the children in their barangay.

In Mogpog town, some 25 kilometers from Sta. Cruz, residents can only look wistfully at the river that used to help feed them and keep them clean. Adelina Mitante, 63, says, "The river has totally changed. Just by the color, sometimes it's blue, yellowish, or like rust."

Her neighbor, Milagros Muhi, 57, also observes that carabaos that drink regularly from the river "become thin." She adds, "Even our (harvest of) bananas and coffee are affected."

Mogpog's Dr. Muhi says he has also evaluated many cases of skin lesions and neurologic complaints from locals living near the river. He explains that an aggravating factor is that residents can't help but cross the Mogpog River despite it being contaminated.

"Don't just go down by that river, because it's harmful to your feet," says Mitante, one of many in her barangay with skin lesions on the feet and legs.

Doctors say that even if preventive measures are taken, such as applying cream or taking vitamins to block the absorption of metals in the body, symptoms of heavy-metal poisoning will keep on showing up so long as the toxic source exists.

SHORTAGE IN HEALTHCARE RESOURCES

Local health officials also say that while they had recommended an intensive health and environment surveillance in Boac, Mogpog, and Sta. Cruz early on, the work needed was apparently beyond the technical and financial capabilities of the DOH.

Muhi, for instance, is the only doctor in Mogpog, which has 31,000 people. According to the latest DOH data, Marinduque, which has a population of more than 219,000, has only seven doctors and 12 nurses.

The last time DOH, along with the UP Philippine General Hospital (PGH), held a health assessment of Marinduque residents was way back in 2002. That assessment showed that children in the exposed areas of Sta. Cruz and Boac had histories of convulsions while those from unexposed Torrijos and Buenavista towns had none. Physical examination also revealed that the affected communities had more undernourished children than the unaffected ones. Laboratory examination conducted among exposed children detected as well blood disorders such as anemia, leucocytosis, and reticulocytosis.

Children in Sta. Cruz were found to have elevated levels of arsenic and lead in their blood. Mothers also complained of headache, blurred vision, eye pain, cough, palpitations, and muscle pain.

After the 1996 mine-tailings spill in Boac River, some 38 residents (most of them children) of Boac and Sta. Cruz were brought to UP-PGH in Manila for treatment and detoxification. They all presented elevated blood lead levels and neurological symptoms related to heavy-metal poisoning.

Toxicologist Panganiban points out, "The problem with metals like lead (which was found among many residents tested) is that it stays in the body for long periods of time. So it can almost affect you your whole life."

Dr. Romeo Quijano, a UP Manila pharmacology and toxicology professor, says it should be "a matter of common sense that adverse effects from one or more toxic heavy metals are bound to occur in people residing in areas where there are mine tailings nearby."

"Historically," he says, "open pit mining had always been associated with health and environmental disasters." Among the examples he cites is the decades-old gold mining operations of Lepanto Consolidated Mining Corporation in Mankayan, Benguet province, where, according to a 2007 paper by the Cordillera People's Alliance, residents have complained of "abnormal withering of crops, sickness and death of domestic animals and high incidence of respiratory ailments in humans."

Provincial health officer Marquez says that one problem is that studies done on mining in Marinduque have not been holistic in approach. "They do it separately and the findings of the agencies don't jibe, so we can't really figure it out," he says.

At the very least, he says, he wants to know the extent of the contamination in the affected bodies of water so that he and other physicians could evaluate patients better.

The doctor says the provincial health office has not received any of the water assessments conducted by the Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) under the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

"What I've been requesting is how far the contamination has gone," says Marquez. "They've been examining (the water), but we don't have the data."

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