BATARAZA, Palawan: Responsible mining is possible, but but takes time and has a hefty price tag.
Boy Masindo and Bibiano Ranes, manager and forester, respectively, of Rio Tuba Nickel Mining Corp., said the rehabilitation of mined-out sites should be a commitment, not treated as mere compliance with the Mining Act of 1995.
Rio Tuba Nickel Mining is a subsidiary of Nickel Asia Corp., which is 60 percent owned by businessman Manuel Zamora, brother of Rep. Ronaldo Zamora of San Juan.
Rio Tuba has recorded a “disturbance rate” of 15 to 17 hectares out of Palawan’s 1.5 million hectares per year in its 38 years of operation. The miner spends P800,000 to P1 million per hectare in rehabilitating a mined-out area through soil amelioration (re-contouring or ground levelling, matting with top soil, staking, hole digging) to improve fertility; use of large planting materials; use of native species for planting (20 to 25 species); and implementation of agro-aqua-forestry farming systems trials. Moreover, it employs indigenous peoples and women.
“We know it is expensive but we have to do it. We can’t leave a mined-out area just like that after earning profit. Aside from being compliant with the law, it is the moral commitment of the company to spend for rehabilitation,” Masindo said.
“In fact, we are on a lean year since the price of nickel in the world market is down by 50 percent, but our obligation to rehabilitate the mined-out areas stays. We can’t argue that we are on a lean year because we are still in operation and so, we have to do it,” he added.
Another subsidiary of Nickel, Coral Bay Mining Corp., spent P41 million on the rehabilitation of 126 hectares out of 394 hectares in mined-out areas from 2011 to 2016.
Coral Bay operates a hydrometallurgical processing plant that applies the high pressure acid leach technology to produce a mixed sulfide of nickel and cobalt from low-grade nickel ore.
Its rehabilitation program includes the use of organic matter that is mainly rice hull collected from nearby rice mills, vermicompost as organic fertilizer, and carbonized rice hull. Like Rio Tuba, it employs indigenous peoples from mining areas and nearby communities.
Coral Bay implements pollution control measures by neutralizing acidic tailings, a process in which acidic tailings reacts with limestone and slake lime to remove all acid and produce treated waste.
The mine also uses an electrostatic precipitator, an air cleaner that removes ash particles from flowing gas coming from the boiler and emitted to the stack or chimney.
Across the country, Nickel Asia mines 20 hectares of land in a year, all immediately subjected to rehabilitation.
“It is quite expensive to do soil amelioration, prepare the site for planting…so it really depends upon the mining company. After all, the spirit of the mining law is that if you disturb the site by removing the ore content, you have to rehabilitate it and proximate it to its original land use,” Ranes explained.
He said mining rehabilitation can also be an effective tool for biodiversity conservation and food security, citing the results of the rehabilitated Rio Tuba areas that now have trees including narra, bamboo, mangosteen, tongkat ali and coconut, as well as eggplant, okra, cabbage, squash, ube, mushroom and palay. The site also cultivates fish, swine and poultry.
Coral Bay has achieved a similar feat.
Reducing the time from which a mine is declared totally mined-out up to a state of significant vegetative cover is a continuing challenge, Ranes said, considering that the extraction of nickel ore results in soil with very low nitrogen and phosphorus contents, very low soil microorganism counts, extremes in water availability, erosion and a tendency toward acidity.
“The law does not provide for a timeframe for restoration. I would say it is attainable, but it takes time. In our case, we have reached around 30 percent proximity to its old state in 18 months, with the biggest tree covering at least 40 meters,” Ranes said.
“So if you ask me if we can restore the mined-out area to its original state, it’s possible, but it takes time and we can’t predict that timeframe.”