KASAMA Vol. 12 No. 2 / April-May-June 1998 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

Marcopper Disaster: Two Years Later

Philippines Solidarity Network of Aotearoa detailed the horrific environmental consequences arising from the March 1996 tailings dambust at the Marcopper mine owned by Placer Dome of Canada on Marinduque island in the Philippines. The following are extracts from the May 13, 1998 issues of the PSNA newsletter Kapatiran.

Graphic: Kapatiran, 13 May 1998

The most damning evidence of the company's long term environmental abuse of Marinduque comes from Dutch-Canadian anthropologist Catherine Coumans, who did field research in Marinduque from 1988 to 1990. To mark the second anniversary of the far from resolved disaster, she wrote:

'Studies Confirm Placer Dome's Waste Poisons Marinduque'

'Soon, Marinduqueños will be facing a terrible anniversary. It has been two years since a badly sealed drainage tunnel collapsed spewing three to four million tons of mine tailings into the 26- kilometre long Boac river. The thick grey mine waste instantly destroyed all life in the river and changed for years to come the lives of some 20,700 villagers living along the river and the nearby coast. Despite two years of promises by Placer Dome Inc - the Canadian mining giant responsible for the disaster - to clean up and restore the Boac river, it is still a barren wasteland of tailings. Placer Dome's own studies estimate that only one third, at best, of the tailings are now, temporarily, under control in a dredged channel at the mouth of the river. Most of the tailings are still in and along the river bed, and some have swept into the sea where corals and seagrasses have been smothered.

'Even as Marinduqueños have been reeling in the aftermath of the March 24, 1996 disaster, a most amazing thing has been happening. As ever more experts and scientists have poured into the island province to study the disaster, they have produced an ever growing pile of studies. The contents of these studies have been nothing short of revelatory, Marinduqueños have been receiving a crash course in environmental and health hazards related to irresponsible mining. And, for the first time in 30 years of mining by Placer Dome on the island, light is finally being shed on the serious environmental problems that Marinduqueños have reported since the early 1970s. Reams of historical documents show that in all those years Placer Dome's managers have consistently told the people their problems were not related to the mine. Now we know better. And now, Marinduqueños have expert studies to back them up.

'It was the United Nations report of 1996 that first put the blame for the Boac disaster squarely on the shoulders of the Placer Dome management of the Marcopper mine. The report calls the use of a mined-out pit as a tailings disposal site "unconventional" and questions why necessary risk assessments were not carried out adding, "it is possible that had such risk assessment been carried out then the present environmental disaster would not have occurred".

'The UN report also explained for the first time to Marinduqueños how the tailings in the river could become highly toxic if left exposed to air and fresh water, which causes them to oxidise, become acidic, and leach trace metals into the environment; a process known as Acid Mine Drainage. Placer Dome's own report admits that since February 1997, this toxic process has started in the exposed tailings in the Boac river.

'The UN report also focussed attention on a waste rock siltation pond located in the mountains at the top of the Boac river. The UN team noted it was clearly leaking toxic acid drainage through a breach in the dam wall, evidence that "environmental management was not a high priority for Marcopper". This revelation, in addition to the insight that the now collapsed tunnel had been used to drain acidic water from the Tapian mine pit into the Boac river since the early 1970s, finally explained regular "fishkills" in the Boac river starting in the 1970s.

'With this knowledge, years of similar inexplicable fish kills and foul river smells in the neighbouring Mogpog river are also suddenly less puzzling. There, atop the river, another highly acidic waste rock siltation pond is situated behind a notoriously inadequate and leaking dam wall. In 1993 this dam even broke altogether flooding the Mogpog river and killing fish.

'Finally, there is the tragedy of Calancan Bay, where Placer Dome dumped some 200 million tons of mine tailings via surface disposal into the shallow, coral rich bay between 1975 and mid-1991. The tailings now cover some 80 sq km of the bottom of the bay and there is a five km long causeway of exposed tailings. In all those years, and to this day, Placer Dome managers are on record as vehemently denying that the fishermen, who relied on the bay for their food and livelihood, were damaged by the dumping. But now, once again, the expert studies prove the fishermen right.

'Placer Dome has commissioned numerous studies to assess the loss of livelihood from fishing in the coastal areas affected by the Boac spill. These reports clearly link turbidity, caused when tailings enter the water, and smothered corals and seagrasses to loss of livelihood from fishing. These studies also warn of the dangers of toxic runoff from tailings left exposed to the air, as tailings in Calancan Bay are.

'In 1997, tests conducted by the Department of Health and medical doctors at the University of the Philippines identified toxic levels of heavy metals in the blood of villagers from Boac and Calancan Bay. Mogpog villagers have not been tested yet. Health Secretary Reodica reportedly said, "in the long run if we continue to monitor we will find more cases". Placer Dome has tried to cast aspersions on these findings but in fact they confirm predictions made in Placer Dome's own studies.

'To this day, and despite evidence from expert studies, Placer Dome still refuses to take responsibility for damages in Mogpog and Calancan Bay. It is now up to the Philippine government to insist on environmental rehabilitation and compensation for all affected areas and people of Marinduque, using Placer Dome's desire to open new mines in the country as powerful leverage'. (Philippine Daily Inquirer, March 7, 1998)

Widespread Opposition to Mining TNCs

Lured by the criminally liberal 1995 Mining Act, mining transnationals (many of them Australian) are pouring into the Philippines. Rio Tinto of Britain, the world's biggest mining company, is muscling into Mindanao. Newmont of the US wants to mine over one third of the Cordillera.

But from one end of the Philippines to the other, from the Cordillera to Panay, from Negros to Mindanao, people are fighting the mining TNCs, with tactics ranging from mass protest to court cases to outright war. Filipinos, particularly the indigenous tribal peoples most affected by mining, have no illusions about the TNCs. Tactics are to the point - in October 1997, fisherfolk dumped rotten fish in front of the head office of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), in Quezon City. They were protesting the fish kills and environmental degradation caused by that Act. The Cordillera Peoples Alliance has vowed to fight Newmont and Rio Tinto is encountering opposition in Mindanao.

Nowhere is this invasion by mining transnationals more ferociously resisted than in Mindanao, where the notorious Australian company Western Mining Corporation (WMC) has secured a 99,400 hectare concession straddling several provinces. Throughout 1996, the B'laan indigenous people were hounded from their ancestral lands by military forces working on behalf of WMC. A 1996 fact finding mission concluded that an ethnocidal war was being waged against the B'laans, under the guise of fighting the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Human rights abuses and atrocities were the order of the day. The B'laans have fought back, firstly by declaring war against WMC and backing that with actions. Secondly, in February 1997, they filed a class action suit in the Supreme Court, questioning the constitutionality of the 1995 Mining Act.

The B'laan clearly understand what is at stake and seek international help. In July and August 1997, Willy Gulaya and Juanito Malid undertook a speaking tour of Australia rallying support for the B'laan. The B'laan have highly motivated allies. In December 1996 an international fact finding mission visited the B'laan territory. One of them was Moses Havini, the Australian representative of the Bougainville Interim Government. Moses accompanied Willy and Juanito on their 1997 Australian tour. The Bougainvilleans have waged an armed struggle against both Rio Tinto and the Papua New Guinea military for nearly a decade. Moses could clearly see the parallels. [See Kasama Vol.11 No.3.]

The Catholic Church has come out strongly against the Act. Zamboanga bishops said: "Our land is being offered to foreign owned companies with liberal conditions, while our people continue to grow in poverty… Filipinos will become surface dwellers in our own country, with foreign companies owning our lands, trees, minerals and water rights…" (Today, 21/11/97). Bishop Jose Manguiran took it further and publicly threw away a plaque of commendation he had received from DENR. In February 1998, the Catholic Bishops Conference called for the Act to be repealed and all mining permits to TNCs to be recalled. [See front page of this issue of Kasama – Eds.]

The battle lines are drawn throughout the country – the people versus rapacious TNCs and an accommodating Government which uses the military to clear the way for the miners. It's in the Third World that we see the real face of the TNCs, a face of greed backed by violence. But the people of the Philippines are equal to the task of fighting for their land and environment. What they need from the outside world is support.

To subscribe to Kapatiran [NZ$15 annually], contact: PSNA, Box 2450, Christchurch, Aotearoa/New Zealand