Harsher punishment for polluters



TOP officials of Philippine Ecology System Corp. (Phileco)—the owner and operator of the garbage transfer facility at Pier 18 in Tondo, Manila—were meek as lamb after receiving a “sermon” from Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu for dumping garbage into the Manila Bay from the company’s marine loading transfer station.

I’m told Cimatu learned of the Phileco issue after it was brought up in a radio program on the morning of his confirmation hearing before the Commission on Appointments (CA). After his appearance at the CA, which again deferred his confirmation, Cimatu went straight to Tondo to verify the report, without any media in tow. That probably explains why the video footage of Cimatu’s inspection shown in various news outlets had Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) watermark.

Under the glaring sun and amid stifling humidity, Cimatu appeared visibly upset while inspecting the operations at Phileco’s Vitas Marine Loading Station (VMLS) last Wednesday in the presence of the company’s chairman, controversial businessman Reghis Romero 2nd. A sweaty-looking Romero explained that everything that Phileco had done was aboveboard.

The VMLS operates as a transfer facility for garbage collected in Manila, Navotas, and Malabon where waste materials are transported by barge to the 40-hectare Navotas Sanitary Landfill, which is also operated by Phileco.

But Cimatu, a battle-tested and decorated soldier and veteran civil servant, is no gullible neophyte. Seeing the pile of trash lining the 4 km barangay road leading to the loading station as well as the garbage-strewn shoreline of Manila Bay’s Pier 18 where Phileco’s barges were anchored, the environment secretary called out Phileco for failing to follow the conditions of its Environmental Compliance Certificate (ECC) for the garbage transfer station.

“The agreement is that the garbage trucks would directly dump the trash onto the barge, after which the trucks would leave to collect more trash elsewhere. They should not be making a garbage dump of the roadway,” Cimatu said.

“I know that garbage collection is a big business but we should do things properly,” Cimatu admonished Romero.

Aside from the irregularities discovered by Cimatu, the monitoring team from the Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) – an attached agency of the DENR – found that toxic leachate from the garbage dumped at the transfer station were being discharged directly into Manila Bay. The team likewise pointed out the failure of Phileco to meet the effluent standards for phosphate and total suspended solids for wastewater.

The EMB monitoring team also found that Phileco failed to comply with Section 25 (Guidelines for Transfer Stations) of Republic Act 9003, or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000, which mandates that waste materials should not be kept or stored in the garbage transfer facility for more than 24 hours.

Noting the apparent violations of environmental laws, Cimatu immediately called for an “urgent, thorough and full investigation” of the operations at Phileco’s garbage transfer station along Manila Bay. Cimatu also ordered the EMB to invite to a technical conference, representatives from the local government units concerned and the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority to fully address the problem.

“The situation here is similar to Payatas. That’s why we closed Payatas precisely because it is not only destroying the environment but the health of the people as well,” Cimatu exclaimed, referring to the Quezon City sanitary landfill which was ordered to stop operations last August because of numerous environmental violations and its susceptibility to trash slide.

From my side of the fence, Cimatu appears to possess the political will to enforce environmental laws. In fact, when the members of the powerful Commission on Appointments questioned him about the DENR’s recommendation to close the Payatas dumpsite, Cimatu did not back down, explaining that the agency only did what was right for the people.

But that is only half the story. The other half is how to make violators like Phileco pay the price for brazenly ignoring and disregarding environmental rules.

If news reports are correct, the fine for Phileco’s wrongdoing would only amount to a measly P50,000. That’s a drop in the bucket of Romero’s deep pockets. It is an unconscionably small amount for a serious offense that adversely impacts not just the surrounding community but countless other Filipinos who rely on Manila Bay’s natural resources for their livelihood and food.

According to Cimatu, he is now looking into how DENR can implement higher fines and harsher penalties against companies and entities that violate environmental laws. “We need to have a mechanism that determines the full compensation cost for the damage made arising from environmental crimes, including violations of ECC conditionalities,” he said.

If Cimatu really wants to make his mark, he should ensure that higher fines are meted out for serious environmental offenses. If Uber was made to pay hundreds of millions of pesos for breaching mere administrative rules, environmental crimes impacting millions of Filipinos should be exponentially more costly for offenders.

The DENR chief vowed to return to the site after the technical conference to check if remedial measures have already been taken by Phileco. I’m optimistic that he can deliver on his statements, especially on establishing compensation mechanisms for environmental crimes. But, of course, Cimatu can only carry out this laudable agenda to the very end if the members of the CA stop dilly-dallying and confirm his appointment as “permanent” DENR secretary posthaste.


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