Written by Abdon M. Balde Jr.
I was listening to new DENR Sec Gina Lopez on TV the other day talk about mining, and my memories were revived about our sad experience in the country’s biggest mining disaster in Marcopper, Marinduque where Canada’s Placer Dome and the Marcos family conspired to earn billions of dollars at the expense of the environment and the residents of Santa Cruz, Marinduque:
1. The construction company that I was working for (which was then owned by American Cement) was contracted by the Canadian mining company Placer Dome Inc., in 1970 to build the 18 kilometers access road from the edge of Tapian Mountain to the Balogo Pier off the Calancan Bay;
2. Our company also won the construction of the air strip over the Tapian mountain; it was a short runway just sufficient for the landing and take-off of small planes owned or chartered by Placer Dome.
3. Later, our company won the bid to strip the vegetation and earth overburden of the Tapian Mountain until the rocks were exposed. Another company would blast the lode deposits with dynamite and haul them to the crusher plants where the copper and other minerals were treated with chemicals such as cyanide and mercury until copper and gold and other minerals were harvested.
4. The liquid waste materials called mine tailings flowed into giant pipes and were redeposited to large catch basins and contained in the ponds for several years so that the poisonous chemicals subside and return to earth.
5. Our company again won the construction of the retaining walls and dams around the San Antonio Valley where the tailings were to be deposited. Those walls were like the walls of China and were designed to last for decades. These walls were the last structures that our company built.
6. When I visited Marcopper in 1970 it was a bustling industrial complex in Santa Cruz, Marinduque, with offices, large crusher plants, pipelines winding down the valleys, dams along the Boac River, and the Tapian mountain being stripped of vegetation, and being blasted with explosives. There was even a golf course inside the huge complex.
7. Our company moved out of the Marcopper Mines in 1972. By that time, millions of tons of mine tailings have already flowed into the San Antonio Tailings Pond and were successfully contained. No untoward accidents happened.
8. In late 1980s, over 10 years after we moved out of Marinduque, I read that the Tapian source was depleted and Marcopper had to look for other sources of lode. Soon they found out that there were large deposits in the San Antonio area, where the tailings pond was located!
9. And soon enough, it was learned that some of the tailings were finding their way into the Makulapnit-Boac River, causing pollution, poisoning marine life, and affecting vegetation. I was sure that our retaining walls could not have been breached in such a short time—unless it was intentionally opened in order to allow the mine tailings to flow out so they could mine the area for more deposits.
10. An investigation was conducted and indeed, the river was contaminated. Here was my news clipping on the subject: “In 1981, a review of the situation by the then National Pollution Control Commission (NPCC) led to an order that the mine “cease and desist” dumping into the bay. But rejoicing by Calancan Bay villagers was cut short when then President Ferdinand Marcos overruled the cease-and-desist order and allowed the mine to continue operating “without restraints.” He did this in direct response to an appeal made by the mine’s president, Placer Dome’s Garth Jones, who dismissed reports regarding the destruction of coral and fish loss as “slanderous.” Only when Marcos was deposed in 1986 did the villagers learn that Placer Dome’s partner in the mine had been the Marcos family, which owned 50 percent of Marcopper shares through four front companies.”
11. Here is my other news clipping on the mining disaster that followed: “On 24 March 1996, mine tailings of the Marcopper Mining Corporation (Marcopper) began escaping from the Tapian Pit through the plugged rainwater drainage tunnel into the Makulapnit and Boac Rivers on Marinduque Island in the Philippines. While reports vary, between two and three million cubic meters of mine tailings were estimated to have been released into the 26 km Makulapnit and Boac River systems over the following 4-5 days at a discharge rate of between five and ten cubic meters per second.
a. Type of Incident: Loss of tailings from storage pit through old drainage tunnel. Release of 2-3 million m3 of mine tailings.
b. IMPACTS: Evacuation of 1200 residents. Seriously affected approximately 700 families from 5 villages by loss of most river crossings, loss of road connections. Inundation of between 6 and 10 hectares of cropland used for banana and other agricultural purposes. Deposition of tailings in the upper sections of the Makulapnit and Boac Rivers. Loss of aquatic life, productivity and beneficial use of the rivers for domestic and agricultural purposes.
12. I returned to Santa Cruz, Marinduque in year 2000 and learned that there were children affected by the 1996 inundation of toxic wastes who died of poisoning and those who survived grew up with deformities.
Truly, there is no limit to what the greed of men can do to destroy our people and our lands.
“I confirm Mr. Balde’s account. I was the environment undersecretary assigned to investigate the 1996 disaster and we found it to be man-made, a result of criminal negligence. One finds this all the time for mining disasters. There’s always a way to prevent it but the steps taken are always too late because of monetary considerations.” -Tony La Vina, Former Environment Undersecretary
About the Writer: Abdon M. Balde Jr. is a civil engineer works for PhilRock, Inc. back then. He is now a Consultant at the Provincial Government of Albay.