Senator, Pangasinan officials mull class suit vs dam operators

- Christina Mendez, Eva Visperas () - October 13, 2009 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Sen. Francis Escudero and Pangasinan officials are mulling the filing of a class suit against private operators of dams across Luzon for failing to adequately warn residents about the release of water that led to massive flooding in Northern Luzon provinces.

“We are studying the possibility of filing a class suit, a tort action against those who operate the dam so that they will be held responsible,” Escudero said

Escudero, a lawyer, referred to the tort law which is a body of law that addresses and provides remedies for civil wrongs not arising out of contractual obligations. 

Generally speaking, tort law defines what constitutes a legal injury and establishes the circumstances under which one person may be held liable for another’s injury. Torts cover intentional acts and accidents (negligent acts).

“Why did they allow the water level to reach 288 meters above sea level before they released water? They should have released water at 220 or 240 (meters) so the water could have been released slowly,” said Escudero.

In San Nicolas, Pangasinan, Escudero noted 18 barangays were cut off from main thoroughfares after a bridge collapsed. He added that even the municipal offices of Asingan and Villasis were flooded.

“There is P1 billion allocated for the alarm system of the dams. I want to see why only P300 million was spent and why the money released for the system was not used for its operation and maintenance,” he said.

Escudero added that under the law, operators are legally liable for any negligence on their part.

“In the span of 10 hours, 190 billion liters of water were released by the San Roque dam. This is the exact reason why the dikes along Agno River gave way and overflowed. What is ironic and more annoying about this is the head of the Agno River flood control project was also begging to be rescued after being trapped on the roof of his office,” he said.

Escudero pointed out the private operator of San Roque dam, two days before Pepeng made landfall in the province, was telling the public that they can absorb all the rain the typhoon can bring.

The maximum capacity of the dikes in the area was 4,000 cubic meters per second only. At the height of the typhoon, 5,361 cubic meters per second or about 5.361 million liters of water were released into towns and villages. This is equivalent to 380 million liters of water per minute or 19 billion liters of water per hour.

Aside from San Roque, Escudero also wants to review the procedures of Binga, Pantabangan, and Angat dams. “Although I admit that no one wanted the tragedy to happen, dam officials appear to have lacked in preparation and knowledge in dealing with typhoons,” he said.

Tomorrow, the Oversight Committee on Climate Change led by Sen. Loren Legarda will invite the dam operators in the affected provinces to explain what happened during the onslaught of typhoon Pepeng.

More intelligent manner

In an interview with local media in his Bonuan Binloc residence in Pangasinan, former House speaker Jose de Venecia Jr., whose district was among the most severely devastated, said: “The San Roque Dam officials and the National Power Corp. officials face prosecution unless they come up with a program now and in the future on a more intelligent manner of releasing water from the dam in the event of failure and crisis because they have been responsible in effect.”

He said damage to life and property and the crisis that hundreds of thousands have suffered during the last few days are so huge.

He said the “massive releases of dam waters augmented by waters from the Ambuklao and Binga dams and the sustained rains were merging with torrents in the Agno, Bued and Sinocalan rivers, creating the Pangasinan deluge.”

For his part, Pangasinan sixth district Rep. Conrado Estrella III, whose district was the worst-devastated by rampaging floodwaters Friday, said his lawyers and his technical people are determining if indeed there were lapses made by the San Roque Dam and other entities who are responsible for the disaster.

Meantime, Gov. Amado Espino Jr. said that apart from provincial officials, the Filipino-Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Pangasinan is also planning a different suit against the San Roque Dam operators.

The STAR tried to get reactions from the San Roque Power Corp. about the possible legal suit but Tom Valdez, the company’s vice president for corporate social responsibility, did not respond to calls and text messages made and sent to his cell phone.

Not the sole cause

Government officials came to the rescue of dam operators yesterday and said the release of water from the dams in northern and central Luzon was not the sole cause of the massive flooding in the region.

Science and Technology Undersecretary Graciano Yumul said the dam operators and the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa), which monitors water levels, gave several warnings to local officials concerned.

Pagasa and the Department of Science and Technology are the lead agencies in the flood forecasting and warning system for dam operations.

He said from Oct. 3 to Oct. 8, daily rainfall in northern Luzon had ranged from 200 millimeters to 675 millimeters, way above the definition of heavy rainfall of 180 millimeters in 24 hours.

“With the data available right now… with or without the opening of the dam, there would actually be flooding in northern Luzon and the source of water would actually be three-fold,” Yumul told a news briefing at the Palace.

He said the opening of the dam gates has increased floodwaters “but whether it’s going to be flooded or not in northern and central Luzon is actually a foregone conclusion.”

The first source of water that caused the flooding was the rainfall brought by typhoon Pepeng. The second source of floodwater was from watersheds in the region, he said.

He said the flooding in San Fabian, Mangaldan and Dagupan in Pangasinan were “not related to the opening of the dams.”

Realign budget

As this developed, former economic planning Sec. Ralph Recto recommended yesterday that the government should realign the focus of the P1.541-trillion national budget for 2010.

“Ondoy and Pepeng have washed away not only towns and cities but also the moorings of the 2010 budget. Disaster has become a big macro-economic assumption of the budget,” Recto said.

In a statement, Recto suggested that Congress should cut Maintenance and Other Operating Expenses (MOOE) items proposed by Malacañang to convert the budget into a blueprint for reconstruction.

He added that next year’s spending must focus on the “3 R’s - relief to victims, rebuilding damaged structures and reviving local economies.”     – With Paolo Romero

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