Despite admitting that she lacks the technical knowledge of the mining industry, Environment Secretary Regina Paz Lopez on Tuesday defended her controversial decision to close 23 mining operations and suspend five others, saying she did it “to protect the present and future generations.”
In an interview on ANC’s Headstart, Lopez stressed that she did not know the technicalities of mining and had to rely on “someone who has the common good in his heart,” which happened to be former Mines and Geosciences Bureau Director Leo Jasareno.
“I’m having him as a consultant because I trust him … my experience with him has been a man with unquestionable integrity,” Lopez said, noting that Jasareno spent 38 years with the MGB.
“He’s really, really clean. In fact, during his term, there have been more suspensions in the mining industry,” she added.
The DENR chief was reacting to calls by mining companies affected by the DENR order to make public the basis of her directive to close and suspend them.
Dr. Carlos Arcilla, director of the University of the Philippines’ National Institute of Geological Sciences, said he agrees with the DENR Secretary that irresponsible mining operations should be shut down.
Arcilla, however, said stakeholders are more interested to know what the bases are for closing mines in order to teach future geologists and engineers correct and scientific ways to mine without endangering the environment.
“We are in agreement that the irresponsible mines should be closed. No argument on that. That is the purpose of the audit—technical people checking whether the mines are fulfilling the obligations under law to protect the environment,” Arcilla said.
Arcilla also pointed out Lopez has conflicts of interest as the DENR secretary, citing the case involving the oil leak at the West Tower condominium in Makati City that was caused by the First Philippine Industrial Corporation (FPIC), a company owned mostly by Lopez family.
The case is considered as one of the worst environmental disasters in the country, but Lopez has not done anything to comply with a Supreme Court order directing the DENR at that time to oversee the cleanup of the remaining pollutants in the groundwater and soil that affected the rest of the Barangay Bangkal, where West Tower is located, Arcilla noted.
The oil spill had forced the evacuation of all residents of West Tower due to the threat of an explosion. The incident caused the formation of a huge underground plume comprising petroleum products that contain carcinogenic benzene which polluted the soil and groundwater in Bangkal, Makati’s most populous barangay, Arcilla said.
He noted the case was the basis for first Writ of Kalikasan issued by the Supreme Court.
“Secretary Lopez, already six months into her tenure as head of DENR, has not done anything to mitigate, publicize and lessen the suffering caused to the displaced people of West Tower and Bangkal,” said Arcilla, who was hired as head consultant of the Makati City government to investigate the 2010 oil leak.
He added that “in contrast, she has been very vocal in her desire to close errant mining companies, but she has not shown concern for a definitive case of massive pollution caused by a company which is owned by her family, showing deliberate conflict of interest.”
Arcilla noted that when Lopez announced the closure and suspension of mining operations, technical personnel of the MGB which conducted the mining audit were barred from attending her press briefing.
“The basis for the mine closures has not been made public, and they have not been given to the mines that are to be closed,” Arcilla said. “This tells me that the main basis for mine closures is emotion, superficial impressions.”
Reporters who asked for a copy of the MGB’s recommendations during Lopez’s press briefing last Thursday quoted Lopez as saying “I’m gonna think about it, because if I don’t agree with it then I’m not gonna give it to you.
“Because I don’t agree with it, so why will I give it to you? If it’s not resonant with the principles on which DENR runs, and it’s not consonant with my own observations of my going [to mining sites], why will I give it to you if I don’t agree with it?”
When reporters insisted on getting a copy, Lopez was quoted as having said “I’m not going to show you … because I don’t want anything complicated, and I don’t want to rock the boat. Just leave it already, I’ve made my decision and accept it. That’s what you write about, don’t try to make things complicated.”
Lopez, however, believe that her action is “fair and within the law” and in line with the instructions of President Rodrigo Duterte.
“One hundred million percent. We followed the law. And in the Mining Law, it says that it should not endanger the present and future generations. That’s in the law. Actually, the Philippine Constitutions holds soci al justice,” she said.
“If you have mining in the watershed, you are endangering the present and future generations. Exclamation point, encircle, highlight … capitalize,” the Cabinet official sa id.
Artemio Disini, chairman of the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines, said they are invoking their right-to-know under the freedom of information (FOI) to compel Lopez to produce more information regarding the closure and suspension order.
“We will file this week. It is being finalized and will be submitted to the DENR,” Disini said.
Disini claimed Lopez was not telling the truth when the secretary told members of the media that copies of the order were already sent to respective companies, which are now “fighting for life.”
The executive also said that several miners are ready to file cases in court if the DENR denies their request. Ronald Recidoro, vice president for Legal and Policy of the COMP, said that going to court would compel Lopez to finally produce the reports, which should have been given to them in the first place.
“If she refuses, clearly she’s going against the Duterte administration’s mandate on transparency,” Recidoro said. “Every person accused of an offense must know the precise details of the offense you are being charged with.”
“It’s a basic right and substantive. Right now, we don’t know exactly what the nature of their violations is,” he said.
Earlier, Arcilla said Lopez apparently had not considered the people, whose livelihoods and jobs would be affected by her supposedly arbitrary decision, pointing out those engineers and scientists who have spent years studying mining and other extractive industries, should be the ones relied upon in cleaning up the mess caused by irresponsible mining practices.
“Does this mean that the sufferings of the people who will lose their jobs are not included in Secretary Lopez’s definition of suffering?” Arcilla said.
“Those who claim they are the only people who can clean the environment and the only people who love the environment and this country, without adequate training are seriously misguided. They are even dangerous if they dictate policy. People who are ignorant and do not know they are ignorant and are self righteous are truly dangerous to society,” he said.
In alleging that Lopez holds a clear bias against mining, Arcilla noted that in the case of the tailings spill of Philex Mining Corporation a few years ago, the DENR chief immediately ordered the firm not only to clean up the spill but to pay a fine totaling more than P1.4 billion.
“This tailings spill, with serious environmental impacts, did not cause deaths, did not displace people from their homes, and the residual tailings are not anymore endangering lives and the environment,” he said.
“In contrast, the Bangkal spill has displaced 100 families, many of whom have not yet returned to their homes after almost 6 years, and will continue to be threatened by the cancerous benzene pollution caused by the spill. But FPIC has not been fined even a single peso by DENR,” he added.