In the Philippines, the island province of Marinduque is known as a cautionary tale about the ravages of irresponsible mining. It took Canadian mining giant Placer Dome a couple of decades to wreak environmental destruction on major coral reefs in Calancan Bay and to severely contaminate the Mogpog and Boac Rivers with toxic mine waste – none of which has ever been cleaned up. The ongoing environmental impacts are only part of the story.
Fishermen from numerous villages around Calancan Bay lost their livelihoods as the bay filled up with more than 200 million tons of mine tailings dumped there between 1975-1991. Two children died when they were buried in mine waste as a shoddy dam burst and the Mogpog River flooded with toxic mine silt in 1993. The banks of the Boac River still hold steep mounds of tailings that were left to continuously pump acid and heavy metals into the river after another catastrophic dam failure filled that river with mine waste in 1996. These contaminated rivers no longer support the livelihood and economic activities of nearby villages, as they once did. Placer Dome, which had managed the two Marcopper mines in Marinduque, eventually fled the Philippines in 2001, leaving the mess behind.
Canada’s Barrick Gold, the world’s largest gold mining company that bought out Placer Dome, has spent the better half of a decade fighting the province in court rather than owning up to the company’s responsibility to put things right in Marinduque. Once again, Marinduque is the bellwether, evidence that for all its rhetoric about “responsible mining,” the mining industry is still more concerned with its bottom line than in doing what’s right.
In spite of a long legal struggle with competent American lawyers, on September 17, Marinduque provincial administrator Eleuterio Raza told the Philippine Daily Inquirer that Barrick was offering the province around 20 million dollars, take it or leave it. According to the Inquirer “[t]he amount, however, would further be reduced to $13.5 million after litigation expenses had been paid. ‘These are crumbs,’ said Raza, ‘but we are being pushed to the wall.’” It is perfectly clear that this extremely low level of recovery from Barrick is woefully inadequate to protect the health and safety of Marinduquenos, which can only be secured through the comprehensive rehabilitation of all contaminated ecosystems and the stabilization or removal of shoddy dams and structures in the mountains of the island, as well as the tons of toxic waste that these dams are barely containing.
Numerous independent scientific studies of the ravages of mining on Marinduque, including by a United Nations team and United States Geological Survey, confirm the extraordinary and ongoing toxic impacts of uncontained mine waste and un-rehabilitated rivers and coastal areas. As the mine was abandoned after the catastrophic dam failure in 1996, numerous dams and structures have not been maintained and now pose a very real threat of failure and further impacts on lower lying communities and ecosystems. Placer Dome’s own consultants, Canada’s Klohn Crippen, warned in a report leaked in 2001 of “danger to life and property” related to inadequate mine structures holding back waste. These structures have been deteriorating ever since.
Any recovery from Barrick has to be applied to immediate stabilization of dangerously shoddy mine structures, rehabilitation of contaminated rivers and coastal areas, and permanent solutions for the tons of mine waste still at the defunct mine sites in the mountains of Marinduque. But what Barrick has reportedly laid on the table is insufficient for this task. Clean up of mine waste from other contaminated sites around the world indicates that rehabilitation on a scale that is required in Marinduque could easily run into hundreds of millions of dollars. Canada’s Teck Resources Ltd. spent $55 million just on studies to prepare for rehabilitation of areas it contaminated by dumping some 9.97 million tons of slag containing heavy metals into the Columbia River. Clean up of that contamination has been estimated to run as high as $1 billion.
It’s not that Barrick cannot afford to do the right thing. The mining giant paid its new co-chair $17 million in 2012, including an $11.9 million signing bonus. Barrick’s fine for an environmental breach at a mine that is still under construction in Chile came to $16 million, more than Marinduque would apparently get for 30 years of environmental damage.
For the “crumbs” it is offering Marinduque, Barrick is demanding highly valuable settlement provisions to secure the firm permanent legal immunity in this case. One of these, the Inquirer reported, is a clause stating that Placer Dome never operated on the island. “That’s something difficult for us to accept. It’s common knowledge that Placer Dome was a managing partner of Marcopper,” Raza was quoted as saying. Recent reports indicate that the provincial board has rejected the current settlement agreement, described as “onerous.” On October 19, Elizabeth Manggol of a Church-based group, Marinduque Council for Environmental Concerns, told the Inquirer that “the proposed settlement should be rejected, ‘not only because the amount was too small, but because of certain conditions absolving the company of environmental damages.’ ‘Among those conditions is that the settlement proceeds can never be used for the repair and rehabilitation [of the damaged rivers and mining structures] when it was the purpose [of the lawsuit] in the first place.’”
What President Aquino, his advisor on environmental protection Secretary Nereus Acosta, Environment Secretary Ramon Paje, and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources have to recognize is that if funds recovered from Barrick cannot be used to address the urgent risks to health and safety posed by the legacy of irresponsible mining in Marinduque, or if the recovery from Barrick is insufficient to cover the true costs of this work, these costs will ultimately be borne by tax payers, locally and nationally. Barrick’s unwillingness to shoulder the responsibility of ensuring that the environment and people of Marinduque are made secure means that the province’s unfortunate role as the poster child for irresponsible mining, past and present, will surely continue.
[A shorter version of this article was published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.]
Catherine Coumans, PhD, of MiningWatch Canada, lived in Marinduque in 1988-1990 and has since returned many times. She says it was her experience with irresponsible mining on the island that led her to leave an academic career in favour of working with local communities to counter the damaging effects of mining.