Lopez to ban open-pit mining for select ores

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Environment Secretary Regina Paz L. Lopez announced on Thursday a new policy banning the open-pit mining method for gold, copper, silver and complex ores, taking advantage of the “limited time” she has in office, as she sees another rejection at the Commission on Appointments (CA).

Sought for reaction, Chamber of Mines of the Philippines (COMP) Vice President for Legal and Policy Ronald S. Recidoro said the plan to ban  the open-pit mining method is “absurd” and, again, “biased” against large-scale mines.

“Hindi pinag-aralan ’yan [It did not undergo any study],” he said, noting the order was done in haste.

An environmental advocate, Lopez made the announcement during a news conference at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Social Hall on Thursday, where she hinted that she may end up being rejected by the CA next week.

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“Politics is unpredictable. I want to put in place these policies while I am still here,” she said.

Lopez added that she will sign and hand down an administrative order effectively banning the open-pit mining method and putting in place policies that will ensure social justice.

The Philippines is known to have rich mineral deposits, particularly gold and copper.  It is also known to produce silver, albeit in small quantity.  Complex ores are those containing more than one economic mineral, such as ore with both gold, copper and silver.

To be affected

Three multibillion-dollar mining projects stand to be affected by the order—the Tampakan Gold Project, King-King Copper-Gold Project and Silangan Gold Project—all in Mindanao. While the plan to ban open-pit mining is not retroactive, the three companies have yet to start operation.

Asked whether  the three projects would be affected by the ban, Environment Undersecretary for Legal Maria Paz Luna said, “That was the intention.”

She said with the ban on open-pit mining, the Declaration of Project Mining Feasibility for the three projects are essentially set aside.

However, Luna said the proponents of the projects can file an appeal, or even raise legal question, in case of their inclusion in the open-pit mining ban. “They can always come to us to appeal or question the order,” she said.

Recidoro said the plan to ban the open-pit mining method is essentially banning all mining activities, except for those that do tunnel or underground mining.

Open-pit mining

Open pit, also called open cast or open-cut mining, is a surface mining technique of extracting mineral ores by their removal from an open pit or borrow.

Experts say open-pit mines are developed to extract mineral deposits near the surface, or if the surface material covering the valuable deposit is relatively thin, or the material of interest is structurally unsuitable for tunneling, such as for sand, cinder and gravel.

Mining companies consider open-pit mine as the fastest, safest way of extracting mineral-ore deposits, although environmentalists reject the method because of its destructive nature.  Open-pit mines are expanded as mineral deposits are found around the mine, in the process, creating a bowl-like hole in an area where mountain and lush forest vegetation used to exist.

According to Luna, banning open-pit mining is within the powers of the DENR secretary.  She said the DENR chief can issue rules and regulations to protect the environment against destructive development projects, such as the open-pit mining method.

Since the order specifically identifies gold, copper, silver and complex ores, coal mines, large-scale quarry and nickel mines will not be affected.

Open-pit mining methods are usually used in mining gold, copper and silver.

Lopez gave three reasons for her decision to ban open-pit mines:  1) They are lifetime financial liability to the government.  2)  They pose lifetime risk to communities; and 3) They destroy the economic potential of the area.

“I don’t like open-pit mines because once mining is over, who gets to shoulder the cost of rehabilitation?  These open-pit mines will only become financial liability of the government,” she said.

The Marcopper experience

Citing the abandoned Marcopper mines, which has three dams filled with tons of bluish-green water, open-pit mines will become man-made lakes or dams that endanger the lives of communities. The method also destroys the economic potential of an area and rehabilitation is impossible.

Left behind open-pit mines, according to experts, are usually developed as part of an ecopark, with the pit forming man-made lakes.  But the lakes are acidic and, during heavy rains, occasional discharge or spill into waterways is common.

This is currently being experienced in the abandoned Marcopper mines, which was ordered closed by the government following the 1996 accidental leak, when one of its three tailings dam gave in, dumping 3 million to 4 million tons of tailings into the Makulapnit Creek all the way to the Boac River.

The Marcopper mining disaster is considered as the worst mining disaster in the country’s history.  The accidental leak literally killed the 27-kilometer Boac River.

Although there are now signs of life in some portions of the Boac River, with fish species now reappearing, DENR officials in Marinduque cautioned that the water flowing in the Boac River is still not safe for drinking, bathing, or even fish production.

‘It’s absurd’

“We think that the proposed ban is absurd.  It is absurd.  Mining is a legitimate activity.  It’s in the Constitution.  There is even a law regulating mining.  Mining can only be done two ways, either open-pit underground.  It is not something that the DENR can mandate.  It is the ore body that determines what kind of mining method can be used to extract it,” Recidoro said.

He said in the case of nickel or copper deposits that are found 2 meters beneath the surface, it will be absurd to dig a tunnel to extract ores. “Don’t they realize that banning open-pit mining means banning quarrying and even coal?” he said.

Conflict of interest?

According to Recidoro, coal is extracted through open-pit mining.  Quarrying, particularly large-scale quarrying, is also done through open-pit mining.

“If indeed quarrying and coal are not included, is she favoring First Balfour?” Recidoro said, referring to a company owned by Lopez’s family, which operates an open-pit mine in Lobo, Batangas.

First Balfour is allegedly mining aggregates in a watershed.

“Why is there a distinction?  If she really wants to prevent the environmental effect of open-pit mining, then all open-pit mines should be banned altogether.  If it is selective, it only means she’s favoring some companies that operate open-pit mines, like coal and quarry,” Recidoro said.

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