Ash and you shall receive
After shooting first against San Miguel, threatening to shut down an oil refinery in Bataan due to reports of “ash-dumping,” all of a sudden the DENR sued for timeout.
Environment Secretary Gina Lopez said the DENR would need one week to coordinate with the DOH to validate the complaints of residents near the refinery in Limay, Bataan.
That was the 180,000-barrels a day factory of Petron Corp., a subsidiary of San Miguel, covering more than half of fuel production in the country.
Also located in a sprawling 400-hectare property of Petron was the coal-fired power plant of SMC Consolidated Power Corp. (SMCCPC).
Reports said residents there complained of ailments, such as respiratory problems and skin rashes, due to the “ash” from the coal power plant.
The reports did not say how many people suffered from ailments. They simply gave the impression that the number was massive. One report for instance noted that the refinery was in a barangay with 18,000 population.
From what I gathered, those 18,000 residents did not all reside along the perimeter of Petron, which for years was populated by illegal settlers.
San Miguel president and COO Ramon Ang nevertheless chose to face the issue personally—and not the San Miguel spokesman.
From what I heard, he asked for an immediate meeting with Lopez and opened up the refinery to media inspection.
It was indeed a big concern for Ang. The Environment Management Board (EMB) already issued a “notice of violation” to San Miguel prior to any investigation whatsoever. It also threatened to revoke the ECC, or the environmental compliance certificate, of both the refinery and the coal plant. Environment Undersecretary Arturo Valdez also ordered San Miguel to take “radical intervention” to stop the ash fallout, because his boss, Lopez, was “upset.”
To top it all, Lopez threatened San Miguel with a cease-and-desist order. It meant that Petron would have to stop operations. And Petron, again, accounted for more than half of the local supply of refined oil products.
But after a few days, the DENR changed its tune, with Lopez asking for one week to verify the claims of ailments and of ash dumping, plus the end of the world.
As it turned out, there was no coal spill in the plant, because the coal plant would still be operational by 2018. In some test-runs, the plant was actually using diesel fuel.
And so the supposed coal residue affecting the illegal settlers along the Petron perimeter was regular dust and limestone powder, which was the byproduct of refinery, certified by the DENR as nontoxic and nonhazardous.
The limestone powder was kept in the diked pond more than one kilometer away from the river that the reports said was also polluted by coal ash.
Now the powder actually was big money for Petron, priced at $100 per ton, used as raw material for cement. For some reason, the government would not issue the permits to transport it.
LGU health officials also attested that the “skin rashes” among an unknown number of the informal settlers were actually scabies, and limestone powder had nothing to do with them.
From what I heard, after the briefing by Ang, the DENR boss Lopez said she would immediately issue the transport permit for the limestone powder. She also decided against the issuance of the cease-and-desist order.
The receiver of all the accusations of being the heartless evil violator of the environment, after all, was San Miguel, the biggest business in the country today, which only a few years ago gave away hundreds of hectares of land—for free—to relocate farmers in Bukidnon that protested against the huge piggery project of San Miguel, just because they asked.
For if the government—the DENR and the LGUs—believed that those informal settlers in the Petron were really in harm’s way, their first reaction should have been to relocate them and keep them safe—not close down the plant.
By the way, San Miguel already offered them a relocation site that they refused.
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