Marcopper and media

Isyu 18 April 96

I’ve been monitoring the news on the Marcopper disaster (not accident) that killed two rivers and millions of marine life and which threatens the health and livelihood of the people of Marinduque for the next who-knows-how-many decades, and I’m afraid it’s hard to be optimistic for our environment and our poor, not to speak of future generations.

Take this. The waste spill started on March 23 – Marcopper stopped operations a day or two (reports don’t agree) later – yet newspaper headlines didn’t register the event until after five days, on March 28.

Why not? Is the information network so faulty, hindi agad nakarating ang balita sa Maynila? Or was the news deliberately suppressed by who-knows-whom to give the DENR time to consult Malacañang and/or Marcopper to consult Placer-Dome in Vancouver?

Then, again, maaaring nakarating agad ang balita sa Maynila ngunit inisnab muna ito ng media, mas sensational kasi ang burnt bodies kaysa dead rivers, or maybe they can’t handle more than one disaster at a time?

Kung sa Amerika nangyari ito, media would have screamed out the news immediately (hand in hand with more sensational news, if any) while government would have flown in the state’s best engineers to help dam the flow as soon as humanly possible, and both media and government would have been breathing down Marcopper’s neck to hurry, hurry, hurry. When you’re dealing with the environment, every second counts, every dump truck less of silt counts.

Think of it. That was 10 to 15 cubic meters (roughly three dump trucks) of mine waste pollutants roaring out of that damned tunnel every single second, unabated, for more than five days. At 85,400 seconds per day, that would have been more than a million cubic meters or close to 250,000 dump trucks of mine tailings emptying into those rivers every single day, from Saturday afternoon when the spill was reported to have started, to Friday at 10:00 a.m. when it was reported to have been stopped.

The bad news is, it wasn’t completely stopped pala, only considerably slowed down. Ayon sa mga taga-Marinduque, may seepage pa rin. (Probably 0.62 cubic meter per second, the lowest rate of spillage cited.)

It was another 12 days (April 10) before a Marcopper official went on TV with the good news – two days na lang daw, titigil na ang tulo ng mining tails in Makulapnit. I checked out the news two days later (and since), and nada, nothing, zero. Nary a peep from media on whether Marcopper had made good on its word or not.

Apparently, print and broadcast media perfer to watch investigations – like the DENR’s, the DOJ’s, the Senate’s and the Ombudsman’s – than to watch, and watch out for, the environment.

Sustainable development, please!

It’s a sad time for the environmental movement. After more than two decades of advocacy and struggle, tryingto raise public consciousness, trying toget us concerned about how our nation’s natural wealth is being extracted, exploited, made capital of, by private groups for private gain while 70 percent of our people remain poor, tila walang effect pa rin.

When it comes to environmental issues and disasters, we can’t quite summon up a real sense of urgency. Either we’re not very bright or we’re not very caring, or both.

A more intelligent people led by a more intelligent media would be demanding by now, after the Marcopper disaster, the repeal of the Mining Act of 1995 and the rejection of 67 new mining applications that, if approved, would take over at least 22 percent of our total land area, or 35 percent of our upland ecosystems. The DENR already has its hands full monitoring 16 large-scale mining operations plus some 300 small-scale ones currently in place all over the country.

A more intelligent and caring people and media would demand that President Ramos de-liberalize the mining industry and stop offering our patrimony for foreign investors to cash in on. There’s nothing wrong with saving some of our natural wealth to pass on untouched to future generations.

Meanwhile, there are other less destructive, more creative and sustainable ways for a cash-strapped government to raise money. Eco-tourism is obviously one of them. Environment-friendly and community-oriented na, sustainable dollar-earner pa. Too bad FVR’s Philippines 2000 isn’t New Age.

Marcopper’s misfortune

Finally, a few words on Marcopper’s line that the mine waste spill was an “accident” and, therefore, criminal charges are not “appropriate.”

An accident, according to my dictionary, is an event without apparent cause; it is unexpected and usually happens by chance.

The Marcopper waste spill was no accident. Marcopper’s waste spilled, not without cause, but apparently because Macopper’s waste-storage system was neither as five-star nor as fail-safe as it should have been. Tapian Pit, after all, was not made to hold or impound mine waste. It was originally a mining site; the tunnel was for draining water (from mountain pockets hit by miners) into the Makulapnit River.

When the ore reserves of the Tapian Pit were exhausted in 1991, Marcopper turned it into an impounding pit to hold mine wastes from the San Antonio Pit, the new mining site. Dito nag-umpisa ang problema ng Marcopper.

The drainage tunnel obviously had to be sealed solidly enough to withstand the pressure of millions of tons of mine waste bearing down. Ang nangyari, tinipid ng Marcopper ang semento at trabaho; tila yung mga dulo lang ang ni-reinforce. Natural, di nagtagal ang mga ito at unti-unting bumigay sa bigat ng mine tailings. Seepage in August ’95. Flash flood in March ’96.

Apparently it was in the process of an engineering intervention when Marcopper’s so-called accident occurred. They had bored a hole into the hollow part of the tunnel and were filling it up with more cement when the tailings came thundering down. Either they had waited too long before intervening or it was the wrong intervention.

Government engineers says it was the wrong one and the outcome was predictable. Naturally (not accidentally), the hole released captive air from the hollow tunnel, creating a vacuum that sucked in the stored wastes from above, and spilling the silt down into the rivers by the dump truck.

Marcopper may be right about one thing though – that the DENR knew about the tunnel. If not, how could DENR officials have known that nothing but water used to drain out of it?