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Erring mining firms not yet off the hook

“There could be closures,” Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III told The STAR Friday night at a reception hosted in this city by Asian Development Bank (ADB) president Takehiko Nakao. PPD/King Rodriguez

YOKOHAMA – Despite the departure of Gina Lopez as secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), a review of the mining industry could still lead to the shutdown of certain mines.

“There could be closures,” Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III told The STAR Friday night at a reception hosted in this city by Asian Development Bank (ADB) president Takehiko Nakao.

Dominguez as finance chief co-chairs the Mining Industry Coordinating Council together with the DENR secretary. The MICC is expected to start its review this month. The country has about 300 mines.

“The MICC will carry out its mandate because that’s in the law and I think it’s good,” Dominguez said.

He clarified that he was not the one who created the council. Lopez had accused him of “usurping” her authority as DENR secretary by reviewing her orders through the MICC. She was rejected as DENR chief by the Commission on Appointments last Wednesday.

The MICC was created as an interagency forum through Executive Order 79 dated July 6, 2012 by then president Benigno Aquino III. The council was originally composed of members of two Cabinet clusters: one on climate change adaptation and mitigation and the other on economic development.

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The heads of the two Cabinet clusters were designated as co-chairs. Its additional members were the secretary of justice, the chairman of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples and the president of the Union of Local Authorities of the Philippines.

EO 79, according to its title, aims to institutionalize and implement reforms in the mining sector as well as provide policies and guidelines “to ensure environmental protection and responsible mining in the utilization of mineral resources.”

Dominguez stressed that he was not fighting with Lopez, adding he also wanted miners to follow the law and abide by best practices.

“I don’t care if they close down the mines,” he told The STAR. “What I care about is that they stay closed. If not done properly, they will sue and they will reopen.”

The litigation fees would then be his headache as finance chief, he said, reiterating his previous statements on the controversy.

Last month the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines had warned the government that it could face a $16-billion arbitration case from mining firms that were shut down or suspended. Such suits are typically filed overseas. The amount would cover compensation and damages, the chamber said.

Dominguez reiterated what President Duterte had said, that the government could forgo the P30 billion in annual revenue from mining.

“What’s P30 billion?” Dominguez asked, pointing out that while the amount might look big, it’s just a little over one percent of the P1 trillion that the Department of Finance is projecting to raise this year. “We can take the drop. But what about the local communities that depend on mining? They can’t.”

Lopez has countered that mining ruins the livelihoods of farmers, fisherfolk and agroforestry workers.

Dominguez pointed out that Lopez herself had signed a resolution on Feb. 9 to set aside P50 million for the three-month review to be conducted by the MICC.

Lopez later moved to block the funding, even if her personal lawyer Christian Monsod had helped draft MICC Resolution No. 6.

Dominguez said President Duterte has been listening to all sides in the mining debate. In public, Duterte has expressed sympathy for Lopez and her views on the environment.

Lopez had ordered 23 mining firms shut down in February and five others suspended. She banned open-pit mining and canceled 75 agreements for mineral production sharing.

Dominguez once worked as a mining executive and also oversaw rehabilitation of the Rapu-Rapu mine in Albay, but maintains he has had no business interests in mining for a long time.

His brother Paul G. Dominguez, an ADB director for the Philippines and several other countries since November 2016, is reportedly an investor in Sagittarius Mines, which operates the $5.9-billion copper-gold Tampakan project in South Cotabato.

Singled out

 In a statement from Geneva, meanwhile, Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano cried foul at being singled out by Lopez as having been influenced by mining interests when he voted to reject her at the Commission on Appointments (CA).

Cayetano is part of the team that would present the Philippine case before the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights.

Cayetano emphasized that he has always been on the side of what is right and not on what is popular.

“I’m not surprised that Sec. Gina and her group will go so low as to cast aspersions on why I voted the way I did and even accuse me of being in the pockets of the mining industry,” Cayetano said.

Cayetano explained that he has always been for responsible mining and holds the strictest and highest standards for industries that have impact on the environment.

“I want to clarify that I gave Ms. Lopez enough chances to dispel fears that she would not observe the legal process in regulating the mining industry,” he said.

“I supported her in closing down mining sites that were not compliant with the highest standards. Moreover, illegal mining and logging continue to proliferate, while other sectors that need both strict regulation continue to destroy the environment,” he added.

The senator said Lopez insisted on defending her illegal actions during her confirmation hearings, which made it impossible for him to support her confirmation.

If Lopez were allowed to continue as environment secretary, she might eventually cause the President embarrassment, Cayetano said.

“If she had carried on with her mindset, it would have embarrassed the Duterte administration sooner or later. She would have placed the administration in a predicament that would be hard to defend,” Cayetano said.

He clarified that he respects the passion of Lopez as an advocate for the environment, “but she fails to understand that she cannot arrogate unto herself Constitutional powers reserved exclusively for Congress.”

“Many officials have invoked good intentions when they violated our anti-graft and corruption laws, and President Duterte was left with no choice but to terminate them. Ms. Lopez’s recent acts already bordered along these lines,” Cayetano said.

“Going by her unwillingness to comply with institutional processes, she is not fit to head the DENR. She would have embarrassed the President in no time,” he added.

In appointing the next environment secretary, Cayetano said that the President should get someone with the same passion as Lopez, but mindful of his or her mandate to follow the legal process.

Sen. Joseph Victor Ejercito, who voted to confirm Lopez, said that the negative public perception on the CA could have been avoided had the members with interests in mining inhibited from the proceedings as he had suggested.

Ejercito pointed out that San Juan City Rep. Ronaldo Zamora, who heads the House contingent to the CA, has interests in the biggest nickel mining firm in the country, so it was only natural for the public to suspect that vested interests were at play. – With Marvin Sy





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