Thursday, 19 July 2012

EDITORIAL: EO 79 a big letdown for LGUs

Small-scale gold operation goes on at the shallow waters of Mambulao Bay. The miners are panning the gold tailings that have been dumped into the bay from nearby gold mining operations, making the water murky and brownish. The municipal government is helpless as it has no authority to stop mining operations like this one, as it falls under the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and its bureaus such as the Mines Geosciences Bureau and the Environment Management Bureau. It is hoped that under EO79, LGUs could actively participate in checking bad mining practices in their jurisdiction that destroy the environment. – MWBuzzpic by AP HERNANDEZ

THE RECENTLY-signed Executive Order 79 “fine-tuning” the country's mining laws turned out to be big letdown for local government units (LGUs) whose municipalities are hosts to mineral resources such as gold, silver and chromite.

Their role in mining activities taking place right in their jurisdiction has not improved; they will remain as plain "fence-sitters" and watchers while the mineral wealth is being developed, extracted and milked for billion of pesos in annual revenues.

In short, the EO has undercut LGUs autonomy in dealing directly with mineral extractions that could jeopardize the health of their environment.

This is because all action will push under a close watch of the Department of Natural Resources and its implementing agencies – the Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) and the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB), with regulatory powers thrown to the so-called Provincial/City Mining Regulatory Board (P/CMRB), an entity off-limits to LGUs.

LGUs being outsider to P/CMRB is quite ironic in the sense that all mining activities are carried out within the municipality, and not in cities. And yet the municipal government has no seat in this board.

The EO, under Section 12, was very clear in constricting LGUs. It said: “LGUs shall confine themselves only to the imposition of reasonable limitations on mining activities conducted within their respective territorial jurisdictions that are consistent with national laws and regulations".

There was no need for the national government to spell this out in EO 79 because LGUs were well aware of this when they enacted ordinances banning mining.

After all, by passing such ordinances, the LGUs were only exercising their police power and upholding welfare and their constituents' right to a balanced and healthful ecology" and the well-being of their local territories and ecosystem.

The new mining order is a virtual warning to local governments such as that of Jose Panganiban's and its officials led by Mayor Ricarte Padilla, not to pass ordinances banning mining.

The EO has declared that LGUs must conform to the national government's policy on mining, which is to pursue "its promotion of mineral extraction and increase its share in the mining revenues".

However, there is a moratorium in the issuance of permits for small-scale mining operations that involved gold panning and use of small equipment, among others.

The temporary halt was initiated following a series of recent accidents in a number of illegally-operated gold operations in Mindanao and in certain gold districts in Bicol, including Paracale and Mambulao.

But in the province of CamNorte, this moratorium has been ignored by no less than the authorities at the capitolyo, who have the authority to issue permits for small operations.

This prompted the Department of Interiors and Local Government (DILG) to suspend the province's top police officers and to initiate an investigation against Gov Edgardo A Tallado on their alleged involvement in the illegal issuance of small-scale mining permits and for tolerating illegal mining operations.

Even before the signing of EO79, Ricarte's government has already been rendered helpless in checking or stopping the operations of a number of illegal mining operations in the municipality.

There have been new operators with recently-issued permits - all known to JP-LGU - but could not do anything about them, even if their means of extracting gold, like the use of mercury, were causing environmental destruction.

This is because monitoring illegal operations falls under the office of the Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) a unit of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). But in most instances, it just kept a blind eye on this.

With the EO79, Jose Panganiban-LGU has also lost a big stake in the abandoned iron ore stockpile in Baranggay Larap, host to the defunct Philippine Iron Mines (PIM) which shut down in mid-70s.

Being the local chief executive, Padilla has been all along eyeing the possibility of earning royalty for the LGU from the sale of the stockpile of several hundred metric tons and worth millions of pesos, since it is sitting right within the municipality.

But the EO79 has snapped this off, declaring that the national government owned all "abandoned ores and valuable metals in mine wastes and mill tailings" and would sell them for the much-needed revenue.

Environment Secretary Ramon Paje told a media briefing a day after the EO79 signing that "before, mine wastes (were) considered wastes ... but now, we found out that based on recent technologies, we can extract other metals or other forms of minerals from the mine waste so it is now a resource input for new processing.

Paje said that the national government has put in the EO "that all mine wastes, all mill tailings should be considered owned by the state and, therefore, should be disposed of through competitive bidding".

This brings us to another source of potential revenue for JP-LGU but is now spoiled altogether by the EO: the iron ore and gold tailings sitting at the bottom of Mambulao Bay.

These mining wastes had accumulated since the iron mine in Larap began operations before the war, dumping its wastes into the bay waters until operations shut down in 1974.

Similarly, the operations at the San Mauricio gold district atop a mountain that overlooks the Mambulao town had also dumped its gold waste tailings into Mambulao Bay since it began mining prior to the war years.

Until the signing of the EO, a gold miner was in talks with the JP-LGU regarding the multi-million-peso dredging of Mambulao Bay to retrieve iron and gold tailings at its bottom and reprocess the dirt for new types of minerals as well as gold. 

This could have been another source of jobs for Mambulaoans because processing will take place right within the municipality.

Now, all this went down the drain because JP-LGU would no longer be a party to whatever deal involving future operations for such bay mineral waste recovery and the prospective investor could lose interest in the venture.

The only consolation that JP-LGUs and the rest of mineral-hosts municipalities across the country is that EO79 has streamlined the conduct small-scale mining, by putting all activities within a declared "Minahang Bayan".

The aim is to contain all activities in one place as an effective means of containing the waste using a common tailings pond and treat it efficiently.

Before, the EO, Presidential Decree No. 1899 had allowed the provincial government to issue mining permits anywhere, which made it difficult to contain and treat effluents.

Hopefully, in the coming months, Mambulao would no longer see indiscriminate gold operations that have been the very cause of environmental degradation around the municipality, as exemplified by the polluted waters along the shoreline of Mambulao Bay caused by ongoing gold operations.

The LGUs could also take some consolation from the EO’s commitment to provide a timely release and even an increase in the share of national wealth from mining to the LGUs in which mining operations take place for the benefit of the people in these areas.

Most important also is that the EO has banned the use of health-hazard mercury in gold extraction, an advocacy that Padilla had pushed through national forum since becoming the mayor.

Noteworthy, however, some lawmakers have already initiated the push towards enacting a new mining law that would junk the EO79 and the Mining Act of 1995 – to give the smaller stakeholders – the mineral-host municipalities and its people – a better deal in terms of their role in the development of the mineral wealth that sits right in their backyard.

Concerned LGUs have no option but to support this new initiative -- it could be the key to their problem.

- A P Hernandez

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