Franciscans to Bataan coal plants: Don't get rich at expense of public health
BATAAN, Philippines –The Franciscan Solidarity Movement for Justice Peace Integrity of Creation (FSMJPIC) was alarmed over the rising number of patients with skin and respiratory diseases in a community near the coal-fired power plants in Limay town in Bataan.
FSMJPIC members who conducted a medical mission in Barangay Lamao on February 20 said that what they experienced in Limay was a wake-up call to learn more about the negative effects of coal and the plight of the affected community.
The SMC Consolidated Power Corporation (SMCCPC) 300-megawatt coal-fired power plant and a 140-megawat plant of the Petron Bataan Fuel Refinery – both SMC subsidiaries – are located in the area.
“When we first visited here, the smell struck us just as we stepped down the vehicle. Our skin got irritated after a few minutes. What they say that the coal power plant is clean is not true,” Brother Al Villanueva, FSMJPIC chairperson, said in Filipino.
“We all want development. But development should be helpful to others. It’s not right when people or corporations are getting rich at the expense of public health and the poor,” Villanueva said.
Coal-fired power plants remain the Philippine’s largest energy source at 29%. Coal is considered the cheapest source of energy, but it is also one of the major sources of greenhouse gas emissions, the culprit behind climate change and health risks. (READ: Coal-minded leaders left behind by green energy growth - Al Gore)
Foul odor and ash
Hundreds of residents lined up during the group's health mission that provided free medicines, dental services, and medical examinations.
They complained of the same symptoms and ailments which were mainly upper respiratory and skin diseases.
Among them was Geron Yelo, a long-time resident of Barangay Lamao. Yello has been suffering from soar throat, cough, and stomach pains. He claimed his ailments were caused by the foul odor and ash spewed out by the nearby coal fire power plants in the town.
“The smoke smells really bad, especially when it comes with ash. It feels painful when you smell it. I don’t know if it’s boiled metal or other chemicals but it doesn’t feel good when we smell it,” he said in Filipino.
Yelo added that before the power plants were built, they didn’t have any health concerns.
“Before the plants were built, we didn’t have to worry about our surroundings. Now, it’s become unbearable. We’re worried about our children because their bodies cannot take it,” he added in Filipino.
Between January and February 14, the Coal-free Bataan Movement documented at least 649 health complaints that were allegedly caused by the power plants. More than half of those affected were children and teenagers, aged between zero and 17. They mainly suffer from cough and colds, tuberculosis, and skin rashes.
According to Derec Cabe, coordinator of the Coal-free Bataan Movement, the health problems among the residents of Barangay Lamao started in December 2016 when the San Miguel Power Corporation (SMC) and Petron power plants dumped their bottom ash near the communities.
“So when the northeast winds blew, the ash was blown to the surrounding residents. That’s when we started documenting health complaints from upper respiratory complications like cough, colds, and flu to skin diseases, rashes, pneumonia, and bronchities,” Cabe said in Filipino.
"Coal is carbon intensive. There’s really a lot of harmful by products and minerals produced when you burn it,” Cabe said.
More than 200 families in the surrounding communities are being told to leave their homes after they complained of health problems. But the provincial government of Bataan assured its residents that there will be available housing for 250 affected families in the next 3 to 5 months.
Mitigation measures are underway
However, the SMC subsidiaries have said that the illnesses were not directly caused by the presence of the plants in the area.
Petron also told the Environment Management Bureau (EMB), a line bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), that mitigation measures for odor nuisance and relocation for affected families are currently under way for the PLT Cove area.
In a statement released on Tuesday, February 21, the EMB in Central Luzon reported that two areas within the Petron Bataan Refinery (PBR) complex in Limay are no longer used as bottom ash dump facilities.
Based on its recent inspection, EMB,said both the temporary ash disposal facilities of PLT Cove and SMC are “now covered with soil, compacted and sprinkled with water to prevent ash dispersion and deposition to nearby communities.”
The EMB said that tests were conducted to ensure that the air and water in the area are safe.
A 24-hour monitoring for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and hydrogen sulfide (H2S) was conducted from January 26 to 27. The sampling, which was conducted by the CRL Environmental Services, was witnessed by concerned local government units, community members, and other stakeholders, the EMB said.
Results of the sampling showed that VOCs and H2S were not detected at the sampling stations identified by the Limay Concerned Citizens, Inc (LICCI), according to the EMB. The test also showed that the coastal water along the PLT Cove was not contaminated with substances that could be attributed directly to Petron's dumping of bottom ash in the area, the agency added.
Meanwhile, the result of the sampling conducted at the monitoring well, which was installed to monitor the water quality in the area, was within acceptable pH levels.
Coal-free Bataan Movement and LICCI, however, doubted the outcome of the test.
"We believe it is misleading as the statement is not a result of an epidemiological study by the health department but of a twenty-four hour monitoring by a private environmental firm."
On Monday, February 27, affected residents will march to the Limay municipal hall to call on the local government to shut down the coal-fired power plants.
– With a report from Voltaire Tupaz/Rappler.com