IT is terribly tragic and disheartening that for the second time in a little more than two years, we find ourselves offering condolences and prayers for the families of workers killed in an accident at the Panian open-pit coal mine on Semirara Island in Antique Province.
In the early-morning hours of last Friday, July 17, a landslide at the northern edge of the mine principally owned by DMCI Holdings Inc. buried a number of workers, killing nine. It was eerily similar to another landslide in February 2013 in which ten workers were killed.
It must be said: Even though it is well-known that mining is an inherently dangerous occupation, a death rate that works out to an average of 9.5 workers per year at a single mining site is horrifying, and completely unacceptable no matter what the cause.
Now, as in the aftermath of the earlier accident, DMCI and the Department of Energy have said all the right things. DMCI will, of course, offer financial compensation to the families of the lost workers, and is cooperating with the government’s investigation. The DOE has, of course, suspended the mine’s operations until that investigation is complete and any necessarily remedial actions are taken (after the February 2013 accident, the mine was out of action for two months).
In both accidents, although the probe is only just getting underway in the latest tragedy, the landslides were attributed to prolonged heavy rains loosening the soil. If that indeed turns out to be the case, the disturbing implication is that the latest accident could have been prevented.
Penalizing that oversight according to the applicable laws and regulations, however, is a delicate matter for the government. DMCI subsidiary Semirara Mining Corp. is the only large-scale coal producer in the country, accounting for more than 90 percent of the Philippines’ domestic coal production, and about 20 percent of the country’s total coal demand. According to the company, virtually all of its revenue comes from the power generation industry.
And therein lies the problem. The government’s energy policy places a priority on coal-fueled electricity generation – then-outgoing Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla announced in June that 23 new coal-fired plants were expected to be operational by 2020 – and must in turn rely on just a single secure domestic source for coal. Any penalty levied against Semirara’s operation – even just a short-term suspension while an investigation is being conducted – is eventually also felt by consumers in the form of higher electric rates. Since other domestic sources cannot even provide a fraction of Semirara’s output, it will have to be replaced with more imported coal, which will raise generation costs.
Whatever unsafe practices or policies, if any, may have contributed to the latest accident, that they are in a position to indirectly affect a significant part of the country’s population is entirely the fault of a succession of short-sighted governments. The latest Semirara accident is just one more terrible reminder of the need for a balanced, practical energy policy that maximizes existing resources (such as gas and geothermal) and moves away from reliance on imported fuels and environmentally stressful coal power. Even coal – if ways can be found to extract and use it safely and cleanly, which is evidently not the case now – has its place in the energy mix, but reliance on it, something which the Aquino administration has probably condemned the nation to for at least a generation to come, is not only stupid and costly, it’s deadly.