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Mining: This time it's different?
The Philippine Star
By Boo Chanco
The recent well attended public debate over the future of mining in the Philippines was, like the impeachment hearing, quite entertaining. One other similarity: despite the massive dose of information unleashed, it is almost certain no one was convinced to change his opinion on the issue.
That’s understandable not only because the debate had become emotional. More importantly, both sides have lost confidence on the capability of government to enforce the rules on mining and government is at the center of the debate.
The environmentalists are very skeptical about “responsible mining” because of past and present experiences. They remember Marcopper, exhibit A of government failure to regulate and private sector irresponsibility, and that’s enough to close their minds on “responsible mining”.
That’s also my main problem. As a business journalist, I want to believe that “responsible mining” is possible. But every time I think about it, Marcopper always haunts me to the point of doubting.
I had the chance to visit the Marcopper mine site in its glory days and I was impressed with the high quality of development. They even had a modern hospital on the site that looks after the health needs not just of their employees but of the nearby communities as well. Every thing looks modern and Marcopper seemed like a very responsible mining operation.
Then a dam collapsed, and a mine drainage tunnel burst. Lives, homes and livelihoods were lost. Although the mine closed in 1996, the remaining mine structures are so decayed they pose continuing threats to the communities downstream.
Apparently, Marcopper was for 16 years, dumping its toxic wastes into the shallow bay of Calancan, filling it with 200 million tons of toxic tailings. When exposed to the ocean breezes, sometimes the tailings become airborne and landed on the rice fields, in open wells, and on village homes. The locals called this their “snow from Canada”.
I was shocked when that tragedy happened and the Canadian company running it just abandoned their responsibility to clean up their mess. Yet, Placer Dome was no fly-by-night company. It was the sixth largest gold mining company in the world and was listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange. These so-called “responsible miners” today do not even have the size and stature of Placer Dome, how can they be any better?
Oxfam Australia’s Mining Ombudsman took this case and released a report. The report called on Placer Dome to complete an environmental clean-up, adequately compensate affected communities, and take steps to prevent future disasters.
“Our report tells how Placer Dome Inc. of Vancouver, built a million dollar mining operation on the tiny Philippine island of Marinduque and then abandoned it, leaving behind a toxic legacy that threatens lives today. We want Placer to take responsibility, clean up its waste and pay up what it owes,” says Oxfam’s Mining Ombudsman, Ingrid Macdonald.
The Chamber of Mines people are saying they shouldn’t be judged or penalized by what happened in the past. We have a new mining law and they are not Placer Dome. But the past cannot be ignored when making decisions for the present and the future. Marcopper can happen again. It is not a risk that can be discounted.
Anyone charged with mitigating that risk by way of drafting government policy on mining will have to use the Marcopper experience as the starting point. Taking responsibility for Marcopper’s legacy is simply one of the major issues facing the mining industry.
What convinces environmentalists that “responsible mining” is a pipe dream is government’s inability to enforce rules. The government itself admits they do not have the budget and the technical staff to do a better job of enforcement on both big and small scale miners.
Indeed, DENR Secretary Ramon Paje once told me the mining companies are not even paying enough to enable the government to clean up their mess if they abandon their mines. Yet, we hear the private sector mining industry quibbling over royalties that government is contemplating on imposing.
The environmentalists and the mining industry also doubt local government officials can be trusted to enforce the rules specially on small scale mining. After all, a lot of those small scale mines are operated by local officials, police officers and local warlords. At the local level, small scale mining is part of the privileges of being a local official and it goes against the grain of human nature to expect them to properly regulate against their personal interests.
The large mining companies resent this lack of regulatory attention on small scale mining even if these are bigger threats to the environment. They see a lack of political will on the part of national government to properly regulate small scale miners.
Still, I do not doubt it is possible to have “responsible mining” in the country. I do not share the extreme position of environmentalists for a total ban on mining. I know total bans don’t work in this country, precisely because government can’t enforce it anyway. Just look at the total ban on logging and how it failed to save our virgin forests.
A well managed and socially responsible private sector can theoretically make up for inadequate governance. The problem of the mining sector is convincing folks like me to take their word that indeed, after Marcopper, this time it is different. What makes them better human beings than the guys in Placer Dome? They all have bottom line responsibilities and if push comes to shove, their bottom lines will always win.
Perhaps what ought to be done is go through the process of proving the concept of “responsible mining” by doing showcases. We can choose areas in the country that we can all agree are not suitable for agriculture or tourism but have good mineral potential. I am sure even the most radical environmentalists can come to an agreement on a few such areas that could be immediately exploited without harming the environment.
Then we allow one “responsible mining company” to come in and do a model development. We do a few of these in several areas and over the next few years develop confidence that indeed, this time it is different. With the full attention of both the government regulators and an empowered environmental sector on these model mines, it would be easy to see if a company is keeping its promise of responsible mining.
But getting a blanket national mining policy that declares the entire country is open to “responsible mining” will prove difficult to defend in both the national and local settings. If the slower approach means we do not quickly benefit from the world commodities boom… that is not such a bad thing. In fact, it may be good to leave some of our country’s natural riches for future generations.
The step by step approach of winning public confidence may not be what the private sector mining companies want but it is the only approach that is politically defensible at this point. In today’s highly politicized atmosphere, the slow process of consultation and confidence building is the only way to go.
And perhaps, just as a gesture of goodwill, the Chamber of Mines can get together and do something for those affected communities in the Marcopper disaster. Maybe they can show how contaminated rivers can be brought back to life, just in case it happens in their areas too. It is easy to say they can do it in official filings and on Power Point presentations to get their permits but to show it in an actual setting is more compelling.
Of course it is not their responsibility to do anything in Marinduque but they will be doing these things to show people all those modern ways of mitigating the consequences of mining failures do work. It wouldn’t hurt to show that mining people aren’t all like the Canadians in Placer Dome … that indeed they do care for the health and welfare of mining communities.
Maybe they can convince Canada to help fund the effort as part of their foreign aid program. After all, in the Asian context Canada would just be redeeming its national honor besmirched by one of their own.
The local mining industry has to make this happen. Otherwise, this divisive discourse will go on and we will forever be cursing the ghosts of Marcopper and Placer Dome. The key here is to convince everybody beyond words that like the repentant, habitually unfaithful husband, this time it is really different.
Did you hear about the guy who got a Viagra pill stuck in his throat?
He had a stiff neck all night.
Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco
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