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CA defers vote on Gina amid strong opposition

DENR Secretary Gina Lopez takes her oath before the Commission on Appointments at the Senate yesterday. Philstar.com/File photo

MANILA, Philippines - Environment Secretary Gina Lopez continues to face strong opposition in the Commission on Appointments (CA) and is expected to be bypassed by the bicameral body next week.

But Lopez took her confirmation hearing at the Senate yesterday as an opportunity to confront lawmakers with mining interests.

Lopez was allowed to make a presentation before members of the CA committee on environment and natural resources led by Sen. Manny Pacquiao on her plans to address the concerns of the mining industry.

Last year, Lopez closed 23 mines and revoked 75 mineral production-sharing agreements.

Lopez showed various aerial photographs of mining sites in the country that she ordered closed for their reported destruction to the environment and livelihood of communities. They included mines owned by the family of San Juan Rep. Ronaldo Zamora, vice chairman of the CA, and Surigao Rep. Prospero Pichay.

As she showed a photo of a mining site on Nickel Asia Corp. in Hinatuan Island in Surigao del Norte, Lopez addressed Zamora, who was seated beside her: “Sorry, Mr. Chair, that’s your mine.”

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When it was pointed out to her that it was his elder brother Manuel who owned the mine, Lopez corrected herself and said: “Sorry, Mr. Chair, that’s your brother’s mine. Tell your brother to behave, he totally killed the mountain.”

Zamora was seen fiddling with his smartphone while Lopez was annotating her presentation.

She, however, said some of the Zamora-owned mines were well run, including the Taganito mines in the same province.

Lopez also showed photos of closed mines reportedly owned by Pichay, who did not react during the hearing. “I took those pictures myself,” she said.

After the hearing, Zamora shrugged off Lopez’s comments even as he stressed he has no business interest in his brother’s mining company. The lawmaker was a member of the board of Nickel Asia until 2013.

“I don’t know what she meant that when you have a sibling, that would constitute business interest,” Zamora said, adding his younger brother also owns a mine but he also has no stake there.

“Very clearly she is passionate about her job. Whether she is qualified for that, that is something that the commission will be determining,” he said.

Lopez maintained she was merely implementing the relevant provisions of mining laws, including the Mining Act itself.

The policy she laid down at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) is that no mining will be allowed in watersheds.

However, some CA members, including Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, Franklin Drilon and Occidental Mindoro Rep. Josephine Sato, pointed out the law seems to refer only to “critical watersheds.”

“Who defines what is a critical watershed?” Drilon asked.

Lopez presented a list of 143 critical watersheds as she countered that she is given leeway to determine whether a particular watershed was being destroyed by a mining project.

Carlo Arcilla, an objector to Lopez’s appointment, pointed out she had been loosely using the term watersheds and open pit mining.

Arcilla alleged that a Lopez-owned firm operated an open pit mine in Batangas. She countered the firm no longer operates and was not issued a permit by the DENR.

The confirmation hearing was suspended after only two were able to express their opposition. Lopez has a total of 23 “oppositors,” Pacquiao noted.

“It looks that way,” Pacquiao told reporters when he was asked if Lopez would be bypassed.

An appointee is deemed bypassed if Congress, therefore including the CA, goes on a break without being able to decide on the appointment.

Congress will go on recess on March 17.

The CA on Tuesday approved its new rules including its “three-strike” policy where the body will force itself to decide or vote on the fitness of an appointee if he or she is bypassed three times.

The hearings on Lopez’s appointment will continue today. If bypassed next week, it will be the third for her.

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