Mining: This time it’s different? [Philippine Mining] – by Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star – March 12, 2012)

This column came from the Philippine Star:


The recent well attended public debate over the future of mining in the Philippines was, like the impeachment hearing, quite entertaining. One other similarity: despite the massive dose of information unleashed, it is almost certain no one was convinced to change his opinion on the issue.
That’s understandable not only because the debate had become emotional. More importantly, both sides have lost confidence on the capability of government to enforce the rules on mining and government is at the center of the debate.
The environmentalists are very skeptical about “responsible mining” because of past and present experiences. They remember Marcopper, exhibit A of government failure to regulate and private sector irresponsibility, and that’s enough to close their minds on “responsible mining”.
That’s also my main problem. As a business journalist, I want to believe that “responsible mining” is possible. But every time I think about it, Marcopper always haunts me to the point of doubting.
I had the chance to visit the Marcopper mine site in its glory days and I was impressed with the high quality of development. They even had a modern hospital on the site that looks after the health needs not just of their employees but of the nearby communities as well. Every thing looks modern and Marcopper seemed like a very responsible mining operation.
Then a dam collapsed, and a mine drainage tunnel burst. Lives, homes and livelihoods were lost. Although the mine closed in 1996, the remaining mine structures are so decayed they pose continuing threats to the communities downstream.
Apparently, Marcopper was for 16 years, dumping its toxic wastes into the shallow bay of Calancan, filling it with 200 million tons of toxic tailings. When exposed to the ocean breezes, sometimes the tailings become airborne and landed on the rice fields, in open wells, and on village homes. The locals called this their “snow from Canada”.
I was shocked when that tragedy happened and the Canadian company running it just abandoned their responsibility to clean up their mess. Yet, Placer Dome was no fly-by-night company. It was the sixth largest gold mining company in the world and was listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange. These so-called “responsible miners” today do not even have the size and stature of Placer Dome, how can they be any better?

Oxfam Australia’s Mining Ombudsman took this case and released a report. The report called on Placer Dome to complete an environmental clean-up, adequately compensate affected communities, and take steps to prevent future disasters.
“Our report tells how Placer Dome Inc. of Vancouver, built a million dollar mining operation on the tiny Philippine island of Marinduque and then abandoned it, leaving behind a toxic legacy that threatens lives today. We want Placer to take responsibility, clean up its waste and pay up what it owes,” says Oxfam’s Mining Ombudsman, Ingrid Macdonald.
The Chamber of Mines people are saying they shouldn’t be judged or penalized by what happened in the past. We have a new mining law and they are not Placer Dome. But the past cannot be ignored when making decisions for the present and the future. Marcopper can happen again. It is not a risk that can be discounted.
Anyone charged with mitigating that risk by way of drafting government policy on mining will have to use the Marcopper experience as the starting point. Taking responsibility for Marcopper’s legacy is simply one of the major issues facing the mining industry.
What convinces environmentalists that “responsible mining” is a pipe dream is government’s inability to enforce rules. The government itself admits they do not have the budget and the technical staff to do a better job of enforcement on both big and small scale miners.
Indeed, DENR Secretary Ramon Paje once told me the mining companies are not even paying enough to enable the government to clean up their mess if they abandon their mines. Yet, we hear the private sector mining industry quibbling over royalties that government is contemplating on imposing.
The environmentalists and the mining industry also doubt local government officials can be trusted to enforce the rules specially on small scale mining. After all, a lot of those small scale mines are operated by local officials, police officers and local warlords. At the local level, small scale mining is part of the privileges of being a local official and it goes against the grain of human nature to expect them to properly regulate against their personal interests.
The large mining companies resent this lack of regulatory attention on small scale mining even if these are bigger threats to the environment. They see a lack of political will on the part of national government to properly regulate small scale miners.
Still, I do not doubt it is possible to have “responsible mining” in the country. I do not share the extreme position of environmentalists for a total ban on mining. I know total bans don’t work in this country, precisely because government can’t enforce it anyway. Just look at the total ban on logging and how it failed to save our virgin forests.
For the rest of this column, please go to the Philippine Star website: