Antique folk urge probe on mine site tragedy

Rhodina Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - February 17, 2013 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Farmers and fisherfolk groups in Antique yesterday called on the government to conduct a full investigation into the landslide incident in a coal mining operation on Semirara Island.

The Sabang Farmers and Fisherfolk Organization (SAFAFO) and Isalba ang Caluya (ISACA) cited the impact of the landslide on open-pit coal mining on their community and environment.

The groups appealed to the government to conduct a full-scale investigation into the incident that claimed the lives of five miners. Three people were injured and five still missing in the landslide that struck the Panian mine pit of Semirara Mining Co. (SMC) last Thursday.

This developed as Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla went to Semirara and had a meeting with SMC officials yesterday.

Petilla said a team from the Department of Energy would investigate the incident.

SAFAFO president Bernardo Magdaug said the incident highlighted the danger of the mining operations in Semirara.

“For decades, the people of Semirara Island have suffered displacement as well as their main livelihood – that is sustainable seaweed farming. They had to bear the negative effects of pollution, while their mangrove ecosystems were destroyed,” Magdaug said.

The group said the mining company was awarded the contract to mine under Presidential Decree 972 (later amended to PD 1174), which they claimed, was without due process and has expanded massively over the years, exploiting insecure land titles of the people and extending their operations two kilometers into the once pristine ocean and fishing grounds.

“There are presently landgrabbing and labor allegation cases pending against the company,” the group said in a statement.

Magdaug said SMC’s contract was to expire in 2012.

“However, in 2008 the Department of Energy (DOE) extended their contract until 2027 with no process of citizen consultation. On top of this, in 2009, the DOE granted SMC rights to explore for and develop mining for coal and other minerals on two other islands in the municipality, Caluya Island and Sibay Island. This too was granted without proper consultation process or notice to residents,” he said.

Magdaug said the villagers were not aware that the island had been opened for exploration until two years later and there is now growing opposition to any mining expansion.

He said mining operations had become a threat to their main livelihood of cultivating seaweed. The seaweed production in Caluya municipality is estimated at over 11,000 tons per year, bringing, at a conservative estimate, at least P400 million of revenue into the area.

“We support the immediate shutdown of the mine and call for a full investigation into the landslide as well as assurance that the company will justly compensate the victims and their families. Further, the investigation should not just focus on the incident, but should also include a transparent review of SMC’s operations and the illegitimacy of their contract,” the group said.

Sen. Francis Escudero also joined the call for a full investigation.

Escudero, chairman of the Senate committee on environment and natural resources, said all efforts must be exerted to rescue and recover the miners still missing.

He said the probe must be conducted to determine the actual cause of the landslide.

“I call on the Mines and Geosciences Bureau and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to investigate the unfortunate incident. We should find out its cause,” he said.

Escudero said the probe should focus on the possible violations of environmental and safety regulations.

While the actual cause of the landslide has yet to be determined, Escudero said accidents in mining sites have been recurring and must be addressed.

Escudero said the safety of miners should be a paramount concern of the government and the mining companies.

“The Department of Environment and Natural Resources should immediately look into the incident particularly since Semirara’s operations are considered large scale and should have all the safeguards installed in it to prevent any accident, primarily cave-ins,” he said.

At the moment, rescuers are working against time to retrieve the five missing workers buried in the landslide.

Regional police director Chief Superintendent Agrimero Cruz Jr. said there was slim chance the five would be rescued under the rubble.

“According to the information I received, the members of the search and retrieval team have reached the area where the workers supposedly were when the landslide occurred. But there was no body or sign of life,” he said.

Most likely, Cruz said, the victims were swept by the gush of 30 to 40-meter mud that slithered through the mine site.

Local authorities said they find it hard to get an update on the ongoing search and retrieval operations.

Broderick Train, chief of the Antique Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office, said they have to rely on the competency of SMC to do the search and retrieval. – With Marvin Sy, Jennifer Rendon

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