The country’s largest mining project has finally gotten the green light from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) but under stiff conditions, an official said on Tuesday.
The controversial $5.9-billion Tampakan copper-gold project of Swiss firm Xstrata and its local unit, Sagittarius Mining Inc. (SMI), in Southern Mindanao has been granted an environmental compliance certificate (ECC), one of the requirements it needs to operate.
The project was stalled due to a provincial ordinance banning open-pit mining in South Cotabato.
Environment Secretary Ramon Paje said the recent opinion of the Department of Justice (DOJ) stressing the supremacy of national laws over local regulations prompted the DENR to issue the ECC.
“The DOJ opinion was very clear to us. It was a major factor in our decision [to allow SMI to proceed with the project],” Paje said on the phone.
He said his department issued the permit to the SMI project upon the recommendation of the Environmental Management Bureau (EMB), an agency attached to the DENR.
But he said the grant of the ECC to SMI was subject to certain conditions, and failure to comply could result in its revocation.
“SMI should make public the feasibility of the project, ensure that the area does not cover those where mining is prohibited and ensure social acceptability through consultations with stakeholders,” Paje said in a statement.
In an interview by phone, Paje defined “social acceptability” partly to mean convincing stakeholders, especially the people of South Cotabato, that the project would benefit the community without putting it at risk.
He said SMI could implement the project only after submitting “all other necessary government permits and clearances to the EMB, particularly those involving indigenous peoples, the agriculture and agrarian reform departments, and local government units.”
The DENR denied twice SMI’s application for an ECC last year on the ground that the South Cotabato provincial government had passed an ordinance banning open-pit mining, the method the mining company was proposing for the Tampakan facility.
Paje said the issuance of the ECC did not mean that the company could already operate and that it still needed to resolve certain legal questions, including the open-pit mining ban in South Cotabato.
SMI has argued that the ban on open-pit mining in South Cotabato runs contrary to the Philippine Mining Act, which allows it. The DOJ legal opinion supported this argument, paving the way for the DENR to finally grant the ECC.
The Chamber of Mines of the Philippines welcomed the DENR move granting an ECC to SMI.
In a statement, the chamber said the go-signal from the DENR was an “encouraging sign” from the government, which had noted through the National Economic Development Authority (Neda) that the Philippines needed at least $3 billion in investments to create jobs.
SMI’s planned investment in Tampakan, $5.9 billion (P239.55 billion at current exchange rates), is nearly double the amount cited by Neda, and will help not only South Cotabato but also the rest of the country, the chamber said.
“SMI is a member company of the chamber, and we believe it can bring positive change to South Cotabato and Mindanao in general, as they practice responsible minerals development,” it said.
But an environmentalist in South Cotabato assailed the granting of the ECC to SMI. “This country is going to the dogs,” said Fr. Rey Ondap, chairman of the Justice and Peace for the Integrity of Creation and a noted environment advocate in the diocese of Marbel in South Cotabato.
Ondap said the diocese of Marbel, based in Koronadal City, was so disgusted by the national government’s disregard of the people’s sentiment, particularly the affected B’laan residents in Bong Mal area.
Many B’laan families in Bong Mal have waged a pangayaw, or tribal war, against the mining project in the area.
“The issuance of ECC by the DENR is not just a disregard of the people’s sentiment against mining. It is also a betrayal of our future generation,” Ondap said.
Ondap said Bishop Dinualdo Gutierrez of the diocese of Marbel had called for an emergency meeting on Tuesday afternoon after learning of the DENR’s issuance of an ECC to SMI.
South Cotabato Gov. Arthur Pingoy could not be reached for comment as of press time. The governor earlier vowed to implement the ordinance banning open-pit mining anywhere in the province.
Lawyer Carlos Isagani Zarate, the second nominee of the Bayan Muna party-list group, said the ECC was “an insult to the letter and spirit of genuine local autonomy, an insult to the people and local officials of South Cotabato, an insult to the memory of lumad who died defending their ancestral domain.”
Paje said the ECC also stated that SMI must show the “willingness to assume continuing liability” over any environmental damage that might result from its operations.
“We don’t want a repeat of the mining accidents like those involving Philex and Semirara,” he said.
“We don’t want any company to cite force majeure again to escape responsibility,” Paje said. Philex Mining had tried to contest the P1-billion fine imposed by the government after a mine-tailings leak in its facility in Benguet last year.
Philex said the leak was caused by an unavoidable accident following back-to-back storms. But the government denied its appeals.
Under the ECC, SMI is also directed to conform to the provisions involving toxic and solid wastes in several laws on clean air and water and mining, Paje said.
SMI must also observe appropriate practices on vegetative restoration, engineering structure, land use, and soil and water management, as well as ensure proper stockpiling and disposal of generated waste materials and erosion control, the ECC stated.
The mining company is also instructed to protect headwaters, implement an efficient water management system to ensure sustainable use of water and provide the community with alternative sources of potable water supply, if needed.
SMI is largely owned by Xstrata Copper, the world’s fourth-largest copper producer. The 9,605-hectare project covers Tampakan in South Cotabato and adjacent towns Malungon in Sarangani, Columbio in Sultan Kudarat, and Kiblawan in Davao del Sur.
The project is expected to produce an average yield of 375,000 metric tons of copper and 360,000 ounces of gold per year.
Paje said the EMB, after a review of SMI’s documents, recommended the issuance of the ECC provided that it complies with certain conditions “to protect and mitigate possible adverse impact of the project on the community health, welfare and the environment.”
He said he had directed the EMB to monitor SMI’s compliance strictly with the conditions stipulated in the ECC to ensure that environmental considerations were incorporated in all phases and aspects of the Tampakan project.—With a report from Germelina Lacorte, Inquirer Mindanao