An Anarchist and Autonomous Community-Based Resource Center in Muntinlupa City (Manila south), Philippines
By Bernie Lopez
The Philex disaster that leaked 21 million metric tons (mmt) of tailings is the greatest mining disaster in Philippine history. Yet it is only ‘half-way’. The tailings are still concentrated upstream of the San Roque Dam. If heavy rains or a typhoon will clog up San Roque, and eventually break it, that disaster may become the biggest worldwide. It may take one year or ten, no one knows. There is mounting clamor for criminal charges versus Philex but no one has taken the lead. The Congress and Senate environment committees should investigate.
Recently, in spite of mounting evidence of criminal negligence, MGB allowed Philex to resume operations to get enough tailings to coat the surface of the corroding dam no. 3 to prevent an even bigger disaster, its total collapse that would spill 140 mmt. Whether true or just an alibi, we have a dilemma at hand.
(Author’s note. Philex failed to grant a requested interview to this author, who has been critical in past articles, the same with a private group which had said earlier that Philex management is liable for criminal negligence. Refusing interviews with media is understandable because of the fear of more criticisms, but this could eventually create information gaps which may work against Philex interest. This article is based on an interview of Mines and Geodetic Bureau (MGB) Chief Leo Jasareno.)
Jasareno said that when MGB charged Philex with ‘negligence’, it appealed the case with the DENR, where it sits currently, gathering dust. The Cordillera communities, demanding total Philex pullout, view resumption of operations as rubbing salt on their wounds. Engineer Virgel Aniceto of Katribu asks why does the government insist in renewing operations when “All of the three Philex dams had leaked without exception”?
Here is hard evidence of criminal negligence by Philex management, that the raising of the dam walls by 5 meters at a time when the life of the dam was at its end, and the dam was at its fullest, caused the rupture of the underwater outflow pipe when rains reached 150mm.
Philex was accused of scrimping by failing to build a new dam no. 4 in advance , which would take a few years. They just decided to use the already-full dam no. 3 anyway so income will not be disrupted. Philex was accused in news articles of ‘greed’ and ‘mismanagement’.
According to Jasareno, when it was slapped a fine of P1 billion penalty by MGB, Philex initially refused to pay, claiming it was force majeure. This was rejected by MGB. Philex then admitted it was culpable and liable when it agreed to pay in installments, again rejected by MGB, requiring full payment. Philex requested to use the penalty fee for rehabilitation. MGB again refused. Finally, Philex paid in full with a single P1-billion cheque, showing that the financial situation of the MVP empire is awesome.
Renewed operations questioned
The renewed operations of Philex, approved DENR’s MGB and EMB thru its Pollution Adjudication Board (PAB), was met with an avalanche of angry protests from NGOs and Cordillera communities, branding its goal to save dam no. 3 as a ‘lie’, and an ‘alibi’. Not being able to get inputs from Philex, this author interviewed Jasareno, who said that Philex warned MGB that if tailings were not put into dam no. 3, the water could undermine the secondary dike, and may eventually cause a major rupture, spilling a staggering 140 mmt of tailings into the Balog and Agno Rivers, once heavy rains come.
Jasareno clarified that dam no. 3 is not just a tailings dam, but a major catchment basin for all surrounding rainwater. Such a mega-disaster would be seven times of the last spill, already the largest so far in Philippine history. This will paralyze San Roque dam, a major supplier of power to the Luzon grid and of irrigation water to thousands of hectares of Pangasinan farmlands. This will also increase Philex cost for rehabilitation ten-fold.
The designed capacity of dam no. 3 is 142 mmt. Since 21 mmt was released in the first spill in August 2012, why is 140 mmt still sitting there today after the spill? Any math student will tell you that 140 + 21 = 161 mmt (this varies with the figure of 103 mmt based on Boquiren’s study, shown in the above photo). Either way, it is still way beyond the capacity of dam no. 3, proving criminal negligence.
Jasareno explained why MGB approved renewed operations. See photo below, based on Jasareno’s original sketch. He said, the first spill undermined 15% of the secondary dike, and the water is now dangerously scouring its surface. The Philex-MGB solution is to line the scoured surface with tailings to prevent it from being undermined by the water. They need 3.5 mmt of tailings to do this.
Philex says it would take them 3 years to pump the already-spilt tailings from downstream with pumps and manual labor, which contradicts an earlier claim that their four imported super-pumps would do the job before the rainy season, strengthening the case of ‘alibi’ mentioned by NGOs. MGB allowed Philex to renew operations for four months to quickly do the job. Whether MGB was fooled into allowing this or the danger is real is not known. Philex started operations on April 5, and Jasareno said they have achieved 300,000 tons of tailings as of this writing (April 19), or about 8.6% of target.
Jasareno said that it is better to risk a second breach at another point of the outflow pipe near the first, the lesser evil, than have the entire dam crumble. He says there are two 40-meter cement plugs along this pipe leading to the Balog River. He just hopes if there is a second breach, those two plugs would hold.
Freeze the output of renewed operations
It was suggested that the output or income from renewed operations should be frozen. The money can be used for future spills. Jasareno said that he will refer this to Sec. Paje. If Philex is sincere to solve the threat of a total dam collapse, and its purpose is not additional income, as NGOs claim, it should agree to the freeze. The freeze is not covered by the FTAA and is not confiscatory because it is an emergency solution to potential danger, not a renewed mining operation per se.
See the impact of a mining disaster in Italy compared to a potential one in Xsrata-SMI’s gold mine project in Tampakan, South Cotabato, which would be ten times of the Philex disaster.