MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – The environment department has allowed Philex Mining Corp to continue temporary operations in Benguet mountain province while government regulators review rehabilitation plans for the gold and copper mine’s damaged tailing dam.
Environment Secretary Ramon Paje told reporters on Friday, July 5, that they have tossed the case of Philex to the Mining Industry Coordinating Council (MICC) for the final decision on the extension request. The inter-agency body is set to meet on July 16.
“They are allowed to continue operations while we review all technical inputs, and their request for extension, and until such time that we have gotten the vetting of the MICC,” Paje said.
Libby Ricafort, Philex vice president and resident manager of Padcal mine, said that resumption of operations would allow them to “satisfy” and “promote” the long-term stability of the tailings facility.
The Padcal mine’s only tailings pond leaked in August 2012 amid torrential rain, spilling sediment and other dumps from the process of extracting minerals from ore into the adjacent rivers and creeks. The spill cast another shadow on a industry that has been haunted by episodes of mining disasters in the country.
The Padcal mine operations were suspended for 7 months until the government allowed Philex to temporarily operate on March 8 to fill the void in its tailings pond, a necessary procedure to prevent the pond from collapsing again.
In a letter to the country’s biggest gold producer on Friday, July 5, the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) said it is allowing Philex to implement “the necessary stability requirements of the offset dike” in the meantime that the government is “thoroughly reviewing the pertinent technical details” of Philex’s rehabilitation plans.
The letter was a reply to Philex’s June 21 letter requesting for more time to continue depositing about 25,000 cubic meters of fresh tailings at its waste facility as part of the rehabilitation program’s filling and beaching process.
The beaching process in the past 4 months involved fill with fresh tailings the massive conical void in the middle of its tailings facility and create a beach in the pond.
“The restoration of the stability of our offset dike will need 2 years,” Ricafort said.
Citing technical assessment by 3rd party experts Philex has hired, the mining official said that they need to reach a beach elevation of 608 meters above sea level to ensure the structural integrity of the waste facility.
So far, the 25,000 to 26,000 tons of daily tailings into the facility were only able to hit 586 meters above sea level.
“Raising the beach elevation at 608 meters will provide us a 1% slope, the natural deposition of the beach, to drain water from the offset dike to the mouth of the new spill way,” Ricafort explained.
“We need to provide a buffer for the water, and we need to keep the main embankment offset dike to be always dry,” he added.
Expiring July 8
Philex’s temporary permit to operate will expire on July 8.
Philex President and CEO Eulalio Austin, Jr. said the government’s move strengthens their resolve to adhere to responsible mining.
“We are happy that our remediation measures are not delayed, as we continue to share government concerns for the environment as well as utilize the national patrimony for today’s and the future generations,” Austin said in a statement issued July 5.
He added, “This is as much a triumph for our stakeholders, including the indigenous peoples and host-communities, as for all of us at Philex Mining.”
Other watchdog groups also reacted to the government’s decision.
Philex Watch spokesperson Fr. Edu Gariguez said on Saturday, July 6, that it is clear the motive is not rehabilitation but profit.
“This is very unfortunate that the MGB is allowing Philex to resume operations when it is the company itself that has failed to finish their so-called clean-up plan in the timeframe given by the government…It begs the question, what is the reason behind this hasty MGB decision?” he said.
Meanwhile, Fr. Oli Castor of Philippine Misereor Partnership Inc (PMPI) said they suspect that the government’s so-called third party supposedly mandated to undertake monitoring and audit of rehabilitation efforts will be used “to legitimize government decisions that are favorable to Philex”.
The Environment Department has fined Philex P1.034 billion over violations of the Mining Act as well as of the Clean Water Act.
Following the incident, Philex saw its net income in the first quarter of 2013 plunge 68% from a year ago. Philex said its January to March net income reached only P403 million, significantly down from the P1.268 billion it recorded in the same period last year. – Rappler.com