Pagatban River death, recovery and future

READER’S VIEWS - The Freeman

A copper mine owned by Copper Development Corp. Project (CDCP) Basay was in use from 1979 to 1983. A team led by national scientist Dr. Angel Alcala investigated reports of pollution by mining wastes in the Pagatban River. I, Stephen Lowrie, led a team of chemists to measure levels of heavy metals in the water. Several of us from Silliman visited the mine.

Copper ore is extracted and a large residue is placed in "tailing" ponds. This allows relatively clean water to be washed into the river.

The person responsible for the tailing ponds was seemed surprised that a lot of tailing waste had gotten into the river. Apparently heavy rains had overwhelmed the ponds. Chemical analysis showed high levels of copper and zinc.

The river drains into the Sulu Sea, a major fishing ground which was practically dead at this time, the water grey to black with visibility almost zero. Fisherfolk in the bay reported a great lessening of marine life.

This event made it to a national newspaper and I was interviewed by a reporter.

Some months later a CDCP official came to where I was living and presented court papers. I was being sued for civil and criminal libel on the basis of the article! (I'm happy to say that it was thrown out of court!)

The mine stopped operating in 1983 due to falling copper prices.

Silliman's Dr. Robert Guino-o in 2011 reported that the levels of heavy metals were below detectable levels. It's safe now.

If you go to the bridge over the river west of Bayawan and view the banks, they show three distinct layers. At the bottom is normal river sediment, then a layer of whiter mine tailings mixture, and finally on top normal sediments.

The mine is now owned by the Basay Mining Corp. An online article from Manila standard.net, August 30, 2021 quotes Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez as stating that the government plans to privatize the mine since there's millions of tons of copper ore that could generate ?1 million. Dominguez also said that "we continue to privatize whatever assets we have (but) the ones we have left are the difficult ones to privatize."

Silliman researchers have stated that if mining is revived, the community should take stock of what it stands to lose ecologically and a detailed, thorough assessment is carried out.

I encourage everyone to recycle and join environmental groups. Buy reusable shopping bags. Buy products in glass bottles. Avoid plastic.

We live in one of the most beautiful countries in the world, let's keep it clean!

Steven Lowrie, PhD

Silliman University (retired)


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