An environmental group has accused a mining company of being responsible for the fish kill in Rapu-rapu Island in Albay province, not just once, but twice, last October. Based on the results of its fact-finding mission, the mining company must be permanently closed. The ecological damage, after all, could go beyond Rapu-rapu Island.
BY AUBREY SC MAKILAN
RAPU-RAPU ISLAND – After an independent fact-finding mission revealed that the fish kill in the nearby waters of Rapu-Rapu Island in Albay (about 600 km. from Manila) was allegedly due to a deliberate cyanide leakage, the Center for Environmental Concerns-Philippines (CEC-Phils) recommended the permanent closure of the mines of Lafayette Philippines, Inc. on the island.
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) temporarily suspended the Discharge Permit of the foreign-funded P1.4-billion ($25.6 million, based on an exchange rate of P54.59 for every US dollar) Rapu-Rapu polymetallic project of the Lafayette Philippines on Rapu-Rapu island after the two mine spills last Oct. 11 and 31 that allegedly caused cyanide contamination and fish kill in nearby waters. The suspension order was based on a joint investigation by the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) and the Environmental Management Bureau (EMB), both under DENR.
On the other hand, the independent fact-finding team that visited Rapu-Rapu from Nov. 12 to 13 was led by the scientists’ group Samahan ng Nagtataguyod ng Agham at Teknolohiya (Agham, Association of Science and Technology Advocates for the People) and CEC-Phil, with the help of the Sagip-Isla (Save the Island), a multi-sectoral organization opposing the Lafayette mining operations on the island, and other non-government organizations and academic institutions.
Even before the mission, Nida Bandal, Sagip-Isla coordinator in Barangay (village) Binosawan, Rapu-Rapu, told Bulatlat that she has talked to some of his neighbors who saw the deliberate opening of the dam to release cyanide.
Bandal said that a barangay official saw the dam’s actual opening last Oct. 31. The witness, however, was hesitant to give his testimony without proof like a picture. After the incident, she said that this official has brought a camera if ever another similar act would occur.
Januar Ong, CEC-Phil research coordinator who headed the fact-finding team, said that testimonies gathered by the team, including a worker at the mine, contradicted reports of Lafayette officials that the mine’s dam overspilled as a result of minor damage. It was opened to avoid breaching of the dam which could no longer hold additional water caused by the heavy rains, he said.
“There was no damage to the dam. Instead, testimonies reveal the mine tailings were released from the main tailings dam to a smaller overfill dam which caused the leakage,” said Ong.
The mission also reported that even the barriers that prevented the flow of the water from the mine site to the sea were destroyed.
Lafayette’s statement on the alleged damaged dam, Ong said, only showed its “effort to shield itself from gross irresponsibility and culpability.”
Meanwhile, Bandal criticized the mining firm officials for saying that the dam was damaged because it is yet to complete its construction.
“Eh dapat, hindi sila nag-umpisa kaagad kung hindi pa pala ayos,” (They should have not started operations if the dam were not yet finished.) she said.
Ong said that far from what Environment Secretary Michael Defensor referred to as “state-of-the-art” technology being used by the mining company, they only saw “a crude, haphazard design of mine structures that could easily result in disasters such as what happened.”
Aside from the alleged leakage, Ong also said that the mining company is guilty of violating its Environmental Compliance Certificate (ECC) which provides for a “land-based” mine tailings disposal system.
Based on the mission report, Lafayette’s mine tailings dam is located near the Binosawan river.
Ong challenged officials of the MGB to “see for themselves that a bogus state-of-the-art and irresponsible mining firm has redirected its wastes and tailings into the sea.”
He said that mine workers told the fact-finding team that they were allegedly instructed by Lafayette officials to dig canals and lay down new pipes to redirect the mine’s waste and tailings directly to the sea.
“They will not fail to see newly dug canals and several six-inch diameter pipes leading from the lower tailings pond uphill, downhill to one of two small settling ponds with canals leading to the sea,” Ong said.
According to the DENR, the standard for cyanide in water is 0.05 parts per mission (ppm). EMB tests showed that discharge of effluent from the tailings pond raised the cyanide level in the water at 0.1 ppm from the second mine spill.
The mission reported that the discharge may have dried out several plants and trees along the trail of the mine tailings. It also included residents who acquired skin diseases after being exposed to the alleged contaminated water.
Officials said Lafayette was fined more than P300,000 ($5,495.51) for the spill last Oct. 11 that resulted in a fish kill reported by surrounding communities. The DENR is still calculating the penalty for the second spill last Oct. 31.
Moreover, Bandal told Bulatlat that they never believed company officials when they told them that the mining operations will not affect the lives of the people and their environment. The areas directly affected by the mining operations are Malobago, Pagculbon and Binosawan.
Bandal was not surprised with the presence of cyanide on the island even though one of the company’s promises, she said, was the exclusion of a refinery on the island where the processing of gold ores is done. The highly toxic cyanide is a primary agent in separating gold from ore.
Aside from the affected marine life in Hollow Stone and Ungay creeks, residents reported there were dead fish and other marine organisms on the shore last Nov. 1. She also said that the concentration of the dead fish were only in Binosawan. An initial 15 kilos of dead fishes and octopuses were brought to the island’s municipal hall for investigation.
But what saddened her and other small fisherfolk even more were the deaths of the shellfishes.
During rainy days or when the waves in the sea are huge that small fisherfolk could not sail farther to fish, or even during kati (low tide), people get their food by picking up various kinds of shellfishes on the shore. There are also others, specially those who do not have a fishing boats or nets, who could even sell a plate of shellfishes from P5 to P15 ($0.09 to $0.27).
“Dati sumisilip pa kami sa butas sa lupa para hanapin ang mga nagtatagong shells,” recalled Bandal. “Ngayon nagsilabasan na silang lahat at puro patay na.” (Before, we peek through holes on the ground to look for hiding shellfishes. Now, they have all come out but they are all dead.)
CEC-Phil. Executive Director Frances Quimpo warned that unless Lafayette’s mining operations on Rapu-rapu island is permanently stopped, more toxic mine wastes will spill into Albay Gulf, destroying the country’s marine biodiversity not only in Bicol but also other fishing grounds in Southern Luzon and the Samar provinces.
Even the endangered butanding (locals’ name for whale sharks) which are seen in the gulf separating Rapu-rapu from Sorsogon will not be spared from the contamination, she added.
Worse, Quimpo said that “Rapu-Rapu is a new Marinduque in the making.”
In 1993, a siltation dam collapsed pouring toxic mine waste into Mogpog river in Marinduque (171 kilometers from Manila). That disaster killed all marine life and caused flooding which destroyed the rich farming areas along the river. It was followed in March 1996 when more than three million tons of toxic mine tailings spilled into Boac river, killing all aquatic life and destroying the homes and properties of the communities around it. At that time, a badly sealed tunnel in an old mine tailings pit burst open and gorged its toxic contents.
The two main rivers in Marinduque have not been revived up to now. (Bulatlat.com)