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Biggest Mine Spill Aggravates Health Hazards and Poverty in the Philippines

Posted on March 1, 2013

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Communities along the Balog and Agno Rivers may have to wait long before they could swim, fish, and pan for gold.

In an FPE-supported study on the biophysical and social impacts of the Philex mine spill in October 2012, alarming impacts were observed on the lives and livelihoods of the communities surrounding the Padcal mining area. Earlier on, an investigative mission was conducted by various church and civil society groups to get first-hand accounts of the impacts of the mining spill.

According to the report conducted by the Cordillera Peoples Alliance, KATRIBU Indigenous Peoples Partylist, Kalikasan-People’s Network for the Environment, Philippine Task Force on Indigenous Peoples, Agham, Center for Environmental Concerns, Amianan Salakniban-Northern Luzon Network for the Environment and Human Rights, and Bantay Amianan, the mine disaster started with the collapse of the drainage facility of the penstock that serves as a spillway to discharge treated water from Tailings Pond No. 3 (TP3). The breakage was reportedly caused by high water pressure driven by heavy rains preceding the incident. An estimated 20 million metric tons of tailings was discharged, much greater than the 1.6 million metric tons of Marcopper mine in Marinduque, making it the biggest mine disaster in the country.

Engineering experts pointed out that the 1992-commissioned TP 3 has already breached its estimated life span of 18-20 years, although there had been previous rehabilitation efforts when the Padcal mine operation was extended until 2017. However, the report also pointed out that TP3 had a minor spill in 2004 for which Philex paid PhP121,000. TP3 is the only active tailings pond used by Philex. Its tunnel drains to Balog River which connects with Agno River and drains to San Roque Dam.

In a visit to communities of San Felipe in San Nicolas and Lapalo and Sto. Domingo in San Manuel, both in Pangasinan, and Pangbasan in Dalupirip, Benguet, focus group participants and key informants relayed their problems following the mine spill in August 2012. In San Felipe West, residents recalled finding an unusually oily and murkish water with unpleasant, somewhat rotten, odor. Whitish coloration was observed on the riverbanks where the tailings flowed. This was also seen by farmers that draw irrigation water from the river. Thus they associated their low harvest to an unknown disease that manifested towards harvest time and coincided with the spill. Goldpanners also relayed having itchy skin and throat when they drank water from their dugged up wells right beside the river. Fish catches of tilapia and carp were noticeably lower after the incident. Similarly, fishers in San Felipe East observed a decline in bunog and udang (freshwater shrimp).

In Pangbasan where an Ibaloi community of 45 families in 34 households reside, people have totally lost their livelihoods. From June to December, they engage in fishing; for the rest of the year, gold panning sustains them. Before the spill, their average fish catch reached 25kilos of tilapia every 2 days and 75kilos of eel in a week. Now, it has gone down to 6 kilos of tilapia every 2 days. On the other hand, income from gold panning fetched a minimum of PhP1,500 for a gram of gold, but after the incident, their gold panning areas were flooded and their gears washed out.

Pangbasan is located in the junction of Balog and Agno Rivers, thus, it is most affected by the spill. Damage to properties and loss of husbandry heightens loss of livelihoods among them. Extended financial support from the mining company was grossly inadequate.

It was not the first time that Philex Mining faced such magnitude of failure. Back in 1992, the walls of Tailings Pond No. 2 collapsed, discharging an estimated 80 thousand metric tons of tailings. Several goldpanners in San Felipe lost their lives, along with several farm animals. Large tract of lands were likewise buried with mud and mine wastes. Those who bathe in the acidic river water developed illnesses such as stomach ache, scabies, and allergies.

Wastes from copper and gold mines such as in Padcal may contain traces of toxic heavy metals such as mercury, cyanide, lead, copper, manganese, and zinc and other chemical reagents used in the processing of ores. While Reynold Yabes of Philex said that the chemical they use for flotation process is biodegradable and in “extremely small and negligible” quantities, this claim remains questionable according to the fact-finding mission.

Health impacts of mine wastes are sometimes not immediately noticeable, but could be fatal and far-reaching. Heavy metals and other chemicals may work their way into the food chain for generations. For now, everything seems normal in the affected villages.

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