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EO 130: Much fuss about paltry gains

by Xandra Liza C. Bisenio and Rosario Guzman

President Duterte recently signed Executive Order (EO) 130 which lifts a 9-year ban on new mining agreements. The economic managers say that Philippine mineral resources have been vastly untapped and could bring significant benefits to the economy. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) expects to generate some Php21 billion from two phases of 100 new mining projects. The mining industry can also provide raw materials for the Build, Build, Build program and employment opportunities for the Balik Probinsya, Bagong Pag-asa program, the EO justifies.

EO 130 lifts the moratorium on new mineral agreements, which was set by the Aquino administration’s EO 79, then pending a new revenue law. Save for this provision, EO 79 actually continued and enhanced the destructive features of the Philippine Mining Act of 1995 – opening more mining areas and reservations, including marginal lands, and clipping the powers of local government units (LGUs), say to impose mining bans and declare mining-free zones. EO 130 seeks to intensify these, especially by removing the moratorium – the perceived barrier to full-blast mining – leaving a thicker trail of damage on the environment and communities and with little benefit to the national economy.

Asking for coins

But the Duterte administration has exaggerated how mining investments can help the economy recover amid COVID-19. Like its predecessors, it has mainly focused on mining’s contribution to export earnings, revenues and jobs creation, instead of counting on mineral development for the country’s own industrialization. The Duterte administration uses the same shallow metrics to justify renewing and expanding foreign interests in mining.

But even in these terms, mining has delivered paltry gains. From 2001 to 2020 (available data is for January to September only), total exports of minerals and mineral products grew almost seven-fold from US$537 million to US$3.7 billion, but this contributed only 1.7% in 2001 and 8.3% in 2020 to total Philippine exports.

Ironically, while the country has practically given up its chance to build industries from its own minerals, the exports sector remains dominated by semi-processed electronics and electrical equipment.

Taxes, fees and royalties from mining, despite Duterte’s tax law (TRAIN) having doubled the rate of excise on minerals and quarry resources from 2% to 4%, have remained miniscule – only 0.5% of total excise taxes and 0.07% of total taxes in 2020.

The sector’s contribution to total employment in 2001 to 2020 was also negligible at an annual average share of 0.49 percent.

Foreign direct investment (FDI) in mining from 2002 to 2020 amounted to US$754.8 million, an annual average of US$39.7 million. This translates to an insignificant annual average contribution of 0.95% to total FDI.    

At the bottom line is mining’s little contribution to the national economy. The gross value added of the mining and quarrying sector grew from Php54.4 billion to Php136.9 billion from 2001 to 2020. But its average annual share in the gross domestic product (GDP) has only been 1.02 percent.

These figures have barely changed after more than two decades of the Mining Act, exactly because the law’s vision is for the country to remain merely the resource and host of an extractive economic activity that supports the industries of the industrialized countries. The Duterte government’s goal has also been unambitious, which is to continue orienting mining towards exports and, by offering natural resources for extraction, make the country attractive to foreign investors.

Catering to other countries

Why then, despite small change for the country, is the Duterte administration so keen on easing the approval of more mining applications – 280 pending to date?

Interestingly, unlike its predecessors, the Duterte administration is also talking about a “raw materials” contribution to its infrastructure program. This is notable, because the so-called Philippine mining industry does not have beneficiation, smelting and refining stages for iron ores. What it does have are foreign monopoly processing plants. There is one copper smelter, the Philippine Associated Smelting and Refining Corp. (Pasar), the previous company headed by Department of Finance (DOF) secretary Carlos Dominguez, which is operated by the Anglo-Swiss company, Glencore. There are two gold processing plants operated by Australian firms, CGA Limited and Medusa Mining, and two nickel processing plants operated by Sumitomo of Japan.

What the country also does have are direct purchase agreements for our nickel ores with Australia, Japan and China through Nickel Asia Corporation, also under joint venture with Sumitomo. For instance, in November 2019 before the pandemic, the Philippine Nickel Industry Association inked a memorandum of understanding with China Industrial Association of Power Sources to have the Philippine nickel mining industry supply China’s production of nickel batteries for electric vehicles.

The Philippines is one of China’s major sources of ore supply. On the other hand, about 90% of the country’s nickel ores are being shipped to China. To cater to China’s nickel demand, in 2019, the Duterte government even allowed suspended mining firms to operate, and pushed for the rehabilitation of government-owned nickel mines.

Is the EO simply referring to how these countries, China in particular, would eventually pour in capital, processed minerals as construction materials, technology, and expertise into the Duterte administration’s foreign investment-led and import-dependent Build, Build, Build? If so, that would really be ludicrous.

Interestingly too, available data show that China is the top nationality with ownership in mining tenements in the Philippines and also accounts for a huge number of mining permits and pending applications.

Big bucks for the mining firms

The amounts that the country gets from mining pale in comparison with the gross revenues of the big mining corporations. The gross revenues of all mining firms in the top 1,000 corporations ballooned from Php10.4 billion in 2001 to Php171.1 billion in 2018. Meanwhile, the gross revenues of the mining transnational corporations (TNCs) in the top 1,000 corporations increased from Php1.7 billion to Php78.9 billion in the same period.

The amounts that the country gets from mining pale in comparison with the gross revenues of the big mining corporations. The gross revenues of all mining firms in the top 1,000 corporations ballooned from Php10.4 billion in 2001 to Php171.1 billion in 2018. Meanwhile, the gross revenues of the mining transnational corporations (TNCs) in the top 1,000 corporations increased from Php1.7 billion to Php78.9 billion in the same period.

There are 50 operating metallic mines in the country, composed of 30 nickel mines, 10 gold mines, 3 copper mines, 4 chromite mines, and 3 iron mines. Large mining conglomerates and TNCs control Philippine mineral production.

Accounting for half of gold production as of 2020 are Masbate Gold Project jointly operated by Filminera Resources Corp. and Phil. Gold Processing & Refining Corp. of Australian CGA Limited, and Co-O Gold Project of Philsaga Mining Corporation in Agusan del Sur owned by Australia-based Medusa Mining.

Accounting for 43% of nickel ore production are Taganito Mining Corporation, Rio Tuba Nickel Mining Corporation, and Cagdianao Mining Corp/ East Coast Mineral Resources Co. These are all operated by Nickel Asia, a partnership between local corporates led by Manuel B. Zamora Jr. and Sumitomo Metal Mining Philippine Holdings of Japan.

Other mining TNCs include those from the US, Canada and China. Local oligarchs in mining meanwhile include Ramon Ang (Philnico Industrial Corp.), Lucio Tan (MacroAsia Mining Corporation), Manuel V. Pangilinan (Philex Mining Corp.), Consunji family (Semirara Mining Corp.), and Sy (Atlas Consolidated Mining and Development Corp.).

The legacy of the Philippine Mining Act of 1995 (Mining Act) is full foreign investment liberalization by granting four kinds of mining rights, one of which is the Financial and Technical Assistance Agreement (FTAA) that allows 100% foreign ownership. The Didipio Copper Gold Project in Nueva Vizcaya operated by Australian OceanaGold Philippines Inc. that has been contested by the indigenous people and anti-mining groups was a holder of FTAA until it expired in 2019. Despite feelers put out by the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) of the DENR to reopen it along with other closed mines, the protests prevailed. In December 2020, however, OceanaGold reportedly learned that the Office of the President of the Philippines has instructed the DENR to inform the mining firm and the Department of Finance (DOF) to finalize the renewal of the mining firm’s FTAA. The Philippine government has also apparently certified that the OceanaGold’s FTAA area is outside the ancestral domain of the indigenous people.

The Duterte administration has apparently used the pandemic crisis again to listen to the demands of big local and foreign mining corporations while remaining deaf to the urgent public clamor for health support, economic aid, social amelioration, and production support. It cites imagined benefits from unleashing hundreds of mining permits even to unexplored areas, while making certain that giant mining firms and even their financial speculators get super-profits.

The Duterte government is banking mindlessly on an otherwise overcast economic future. It has apparently not learned a thing from the bitter, disastrous past that large-scale mining has left behind for us and the future generations to bear.

We badly need people economics

Large-scale mining in the country has always been equated with environmental devastation and disasters. This is precisely because of liberalizing the mining sector to foreign exploitation for export and relegating the Philippine economy to being a mere source of raw materials. Mining investments are simply for extraction, and to maximize gains further, the mining methods employed by the mining corporations are the cheapest and dirtiest.

More than twenty years of the Mining Act are replete with mining scandals of heavy, irreparable blows on the ecosystems, displaced communities, lost livelihoods, encroachment into ancestral lands, and human rights violations. This is while the government has only been feeble in the face of the perpetrators, the mining conglomerates and TNCs who have dodged accountability for such disasters and even continued their operations. The government has even taken over mine sites abandoned by mining TNCs for government to rehabilitate.

Minerals are non-renewable resources, and oftentimes damages are irreversible. Yet, The Duterte government with its EO 130 continues to argue for the reckless exploitation of the country’s vast mineral wealth for other countries’ corporate gains and industrial benefits. This makes the projected gains from large-scale mining even paltrier than they already are. We are giving up the non-renewable resource, the Philippines’ huge potential to industrialize, for nothing.

Neoliberal apologists often ask whether the country can ever have the needed capital for it to tap and make use indeed of its mineral resources. They immediately point out that there is no alternative but to open up mining to foreign investors. Precisely the kind of thinking that has rendered government inutile in its pandemic response.

What we need foremost is the kind of people-centered economics that aspires for national industrialization, of which mining is an integral part. A well-planned utilization of mineral resources for the benefit of the communities and the national economy ensures regulation of mining activities, which is diametrically opposed to liberalization and surrender to foreign ownership. It will also ensure that the sacrifices made by a few will benefit the majority and future generations, and not vice versa.

Instead of neoliberal economics, what we need is people economics that is oriented towards national development, serves the needs of the citizenry, protects the environment, promotes sustainable consumption and production systems, promotes people’s access to land and natural resources for them to harness, and upholds people’s rights and national sovereignty.

Capital can come from progressive taxation, that is taxing the super-rich and big local and foreign corporations. It can eventually come from the values created by well-supported and prioritized agriculture and manufacturing.

But before that, mining giants should be made to pay reparation to the communities they have devastated and their ecological debt to the Filipino people. Again, foremost we need a strong, reliable and pro-people government for this endeavor, one that genuinely prioritizes people-centered pandemic and economic solutions. #

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Kodao publishes IBON articles as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Duterte’s new mining order disastrous to environment—groups

President Rodrigo Duterte lifted the nine-year moratorium on new mineral agreements, earning warnings from various groups of further corporate plunder of the environment and more natural disasters.

Bayan Muna Representative Eufemia Cullamat said she is dismayed with Duterte’s decision that would most likely result in the worsening of the environmental crisis in the country.

“Instead of putting a stop to environmental destruction that causes disasters, he is allowing further exploitation of our natural resources,” Cullamat said.

Cullamat, a Manobo Lumad persecuted for her community’s opposition to further mining activities in their ancestral domain, said mining projects have only brought untold suffering to various indigenous communities around the country.

“The country only earns two percent in royalty taxes in exchange for the tons of soil they extract, the poisoning of our waterways by mine tailings and the loss of livelihood and homes in mining sites,” she said.

In his Executive Order (EO) 130 issued Wednesday, April 14, Duterte amended former President Benigno Aquino’s EO 79, granting permission to the government to enter into new mineral agreements.

“The Government may enter into new mineral agreements, subject to compliance with the Philippine Mining Act of 1995 and other applicable laws, rules and regulations,” Duterte’s order said.

“The DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) may continue to grant and issue Exploration Permits,” it added.

Duterte’s order said new mineral agreements will usher significant economic benefits to the country that can support various government projects, such as the Build Build Build and Balik Probinsiya, Bagong Pag-Asa Program by providing raw materials and new employment opportunities.

‘Unfettered corporate greed’

Environmental group Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE) however agreed with Cullamat, adding Duterte’s order will only result in more environmental disasters.

“Mr. Duterte’s order to lift the mining agreement moratorium will be a disaster upon disaster because the Mining Act of 1995 is still in place. We cannot allow this deluge of destructive large-scale mining when communities are still suffering from the converging pandemic and climate crises,” Kalikasan PNE national coordinator Leon Dulce said.

The Mining Act encourages 100% ownership of mineral lands by foreign corporations that operate based on “unfettered corporate greed” and does not orient the mining industry to extract based on people’s needs, he added.

Kalikasan PNE said the law also has provisions that allow companies to renege on rehabilitation, polluter taxation and waste management obligations.

“Mining companies need only to pay P50.00 per ton of waste disposed of in unauthorized areas and only P0.05 for every ton of mine waste and P0.10 for mine tailings in terms of compensation for resulting damages,” the group explained.

“Let us recall that in the industry-wide audit made by the late Environment Secretary Regina Lopez, at least 68 percent of mining companies had been found with serious violations. This revelation already spells the potential disaster that the Executive Order will bring to the environment and communities,” Kalikasan added.

Beneficial to foreign corporations

Economic think-tank IBON said that Duterte’s new order will most likely benefit foreigners, not the local industry.

“Without domestic industries to process and use the minerals, [EO 130] will just mean that the most significant value-added from our finite mineral resources will keep going to foreign firms, industries and economies,” IBON executive director Sonny Africa said.

Africa said that at the expense of even more environmental damage and displacement of rural communities, real economic gains from Duterte’s decision are negligible.

“Even before the pandemic, mining and quarrying only employed around 190,000 in 2019. That’s not even half a percentage point of total employment and the 2-week NCR+ ECQ even displaced more jobs than that,” Africa said.

Similarly, the Php15.5 billion in taxes, mining fees and royalties paid to government in 2019 is negligible even with the additional excise tax under the TRAIN (Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion, Republic Act No. 10963) law,” the economist explained.

“This EO No. 130 is just the latest sign that it really is just business as usual for the economic managers. The refusal to really reform economic policies combined with the pandemic will just mean that people will remain worse off than before the pandemic for many years to come,” Africa said. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Canadian parliament asked to probe role of mining companies in PH killings

MANILA, Philippines—The Canadian government is being asked to look into the role of Canadian mining corporations in the extrajudicial killings of environmental and human rights defenders in the Philippines.

Member of Parliament of Edmonton Strathcona Heather McPherson filed a petition in the Canadian House of Commons on Thursday, Feb. 25, accusing Canadian mining companies of being “irresponsible” in the Philippines and elsewhere in the world.

“Canadian mining companies are perpetrating quite incredibly serious human rights abuses and environmental degradation,” most of them against indigenous populations in the Philippines and other countries, McPherson said in a press conference after the filing.

In her petition, McPherson called out the Ombudsperson created by the Canadian government in 2018 to look into the reported human rights abuses.

“With no ability to compel testimony from witnesses, with no independence… and with no investigations conducted into the abuses, the Ombudsperson, despite the mandate and a budget, is just a figurehead,” McPherson said.

‘Canada is implicated’

The parliamentary petition was based on a signature campaign started last year by MiningWatch Canada and the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP-Canada) that gathered a thousand signatures from concerned Canadians.

“Canada is implicated in the rights abuses through its security assistance to the Philippines and the role that Canadian mining companies play in the country,” MiningWatch Canada and ICHRP-Canada said.

MiningWatch Canada’s Catherine Coumans in a press conference after the filing said that in 2019, over half of all reported killings of rights defenders occurred in just two countries, the Philippines and Colombia.

“Mining was the deadliest sector with 50 defenders killed in 2019, Coumans said, citing data from international human rights organization Global Witness.

Coumans added the Canadian government must look into the operations of Canadian mining corporations in the Philippines as they function in a context of gross violation of extrajudicial killings, repression and human rights violations.

“At times, Canadian mining companies benefit from this context of oppression and impunity,” Coumans said.

OceanaGold in Nueva Vizcaya

Coumons cited OceanaGold operating in Nueva Vizcaya province she said stands accused of both human rights violations and of having degraded the environment – contaminating and depleting water resources around its copper-gold mine.

“OceanaGold faces strong and persistent opposition by local indigenous people in the village of Didipio, who are supported by their mayor and governor, as well as by provincial and national organizations,” she said.

Coumans added that many locals and their supporters abroad who are opposed to OceanaGold’s operations had been associated with the New People’s Army, including herself.  

Coumans also recalled the villagers had been violently dispersed, beaten and arrested for blockading the mine site when OceanaGold’s 25-year mining permit expired in June 2019.

ICHRP Canada’s Bern Jagunos for her part criticized the Canadian government’s role on the human rights situation in the Philippines.

Jagunos said the Canadian government declines to speak publicly against the extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, in violation of its own guidelines on supporting human rights defenders especially those who are in grave danger.

“Our organization, ICHRP Canada, has repeatedly requested the Canadian embassy in Manila to meet with defenders who are red-tagged and getting death threats, to visit political prisoners and indigenous communities under attack for their resistance to mining. These are among the tools of intervention in the government’s guidelines to support human rights defenders. Such requests have been ignored.],” Jagunos said.

Jagunos also condemned Canada’s continuing support through trainings of the Philippine military she accused of perpetrating human rights violations.

“ICHRP is calling on the Canadian government to review its relations and programs in the Philippines and to apply human rights criteria in making decisions on funding, bilateral relations and cooperation programs with the Philippine government,” she said.  # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Marilao’s poultry processing plants fail lab tests

Reporting fellows of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) collected water samples from the waste pipes of plants along the Marilao River. Laboratory tests show they failed to meet DENR standards.

BY ANNIE RUTH SABANGAN, ROBERT JA BASILIO JR., BERNARD TESTA AND RIC PUOD

Part 4 of 4

Part 1: The Bulacan town where chickens are slaughtered and the river is dead

Part 2: ‘The wastewater looked like mud’: EMB goes after Vitarich Corp. 

Part 3: Marilao River polluters get away with small fines

What you need to know about Part 4:

  • The PCIJ collected water samples from the poultry processing plants in Marilao and laboratory tests showed they failed to meet the standards of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
  • To help police pollution, a lawyer-environmentalist suggests that non-government organizations help the government evaluate the SMRs of business establishments.  

It was low tide when the PCIJ team made a second trip to Sapang Alat or Salty Creek on Oct. 2, 2019, a week after the first. Renting another outrigger was out of the question as it couldn’t sail through the shallow waters. The team rented a rickety canoe instead, and asked the help of a boatman to paddle towards Vitarich Corporation’s outfall pipes.

PCIJ set out to take more samples of wastewater that the company released to the creek, a tributary of the Marilao River, to bring them to a laboratory accredited by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). 

In the succeeding weeks the team also trekked to Brgy. Loma de Gato, home to the biggest number of poultry dressing plants, to do the same. 

Results of the laboratory tests confirmed what residents already knew. The plants had been releasing wastewater that did not meet DENR’s standards. 

Water sample: PCIJ follows instructions from experts

The samples were brought to the laboratory of the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) in Quezon City. 

The PCIJ team made sure to follow instructions from SRA chemists on how to take samples, how much should be taken, where to put the specimens, and by what time the samples must reach the laboratory for testing. 

To ensure that the samples were representative of the conditions of the area, PCIJ also followed the guidelines set by the EMB in its 2008 Water Quality Monitoring Manual, which said samples should not be collected when (1) it’s raining; (2) it’s within 24 hours after a heavy downpour; and (3) the water level is high. 

Wastewater from poultry processing contains high biochemical oxygen demand or BOD and four other oxygen-depleting and fish-killing pollutants: total suspended solids (TSS), ammonia, nitrate and phosphate. 

Based on DENR standards, the BOD of wastewater produced by slaughtering and meat packing businesses like chicken dressing plants should not exceed 50 milligrams per liter (mg/l). 

A high BOD indicates that the wastewater is untreated or undertreated, and thus polluted. A low BOD suggests that the contaminants had been removed from the wastewater and would have less environmental impact when released to a water body. 

TSS are solid materials such as silt, sewage, and decaying animal matter. In poultry processing plants, these may include the buildup of feathers, fat and lard, offal, viscera, blood, and fecal matter in the wastewater. 

The release of liquid waste with too much TSS will block the sunlight from reaching the vegetation in a water body, causing the plants to die and stop producing dissolved oxygen needed by fish to survive.

Ammonia in the form of ammoniacal nitrogen (NH3-N), a colorless chemical gas compound highly soluble in water, can be found in the liquid manure of chickens and other livestock. This type of ammonia can “cross from water to fish” and is said to be the “the most toxic form to aquatic life.”

Chemical compounds nitrate and phosphate, commonly used as fertilizers, can be present in fecal matter expelled by poultry before the birds undergo scalding. 

Wastewater containing too much nitrate and phosphate can hasten the process called eutrophication, or the increase of nutrients that induces the overgrowth of algae. This can cause the water body to turn green and reduce its oxygen content to levels that can also lead to fish kills.   

Other than these five parameters, the Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) measures three others – oil and grease, acidity or pH, and temperature – to test the quality of wastewater discharges of these establishments. 

The chicken dressing industry in Marilao River –– a Class C freshwater resource meant for fish propagation, agricultural use, fishing, and boating –– is required to follow all eight parameters, based on DENR Administrative Order (DAO) 2016-08 or the Water Quality Guidelines and General Effluent Standards of 2016.

The regulations are strict on paper but they are not always implemented, based on PCIJ’s experiment.

Vitarich Corp. fails tests

The laboratory results were out five days after PCIJ submitted the water samples from Sapang Alat. 

The lab results of Vitarich Corp. showed mixed results. The level of pollution in the water sample collected from the mouth of the dressing plant’s former outfall was lower than the effluent limits set by the EMB in terms of BOD, TSS, nitrate, and color. 

The water samples were collected nine months since the EMB cemented off a canal where the dressing plant’s effluents used to flow.  

However, samples from the effluent outfall from the rendering plant that Vitarich operates jointly with PSP Aqua yielded BOD and TSS levels that were 346 percent and 15 percent higher than the EMB-set effluent limits, respectively.

These results were based on water samples that the PCIJ team collected on Oct. 2, 2019.

The PCIJ learned from the Legal Section of the EMB’s Clearance and Permitting Division that as of Oct. 28, 2019, the violation notice and cease-and-desist order against the rendering plant had been temporarily lifted so that the facility could release its wastewater for sampling purposes. 

PCIJ also obtained samples from the part of the creek between Marilao’s Municipal Health Office and the Vitarich dressing plant to determine the ambient water quality of Sapang Alat. They were tested for five parameters, namely BOD, DO, TSS, nitrate, and color. 

The area was within the mouth of the creek that emptied into the Marilao River. Upstream, along Brgy. Patubig, the creek meandered through a host of other industrial and commercial establishments, which could also be possible sources of pollution. 

Water quality failed in all parameters, indicating that because of very high pollution levels, it could no longer receive wastewater and still be able to breathe and cleanse itself.

A chemist at the Sugar Regulatory Administration laboratory on North Avenue in Quezon City checks on Oct. 2, 2019 the bottles containing water samples from a tributary creek of the Marilao River in Bulacan and effluent samples from the outfalls of Vitarich’s chicken dressing and rendering plants. Photograph: Annie Ruth Sabangan/PCIJ

Even if industrial establishments like Vitarich discharged wastewater into Sapang Alat within the effluent limits, the creek would no longer be able to take it in because it has already stagnated, said EMB Region 3’s Glenn Aguilar, who monitors the Marilao River.

Sapang Alat’s BOD was over 3,600 times higher than its 7 mg/l capacity, causing the creek’s DO concentration to fall to the “hypoxic” or oxygen-deprived level of 1.13 mg/l.

Based on an undated report on hypoxia by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), conducted in the Gulf of Mexico and Long Island Sound, bottom fishes start to leave water bodies when oxygen levels reach about 3 mg/l. Fish and crustaceans that cannot leave the area may die when it goes below 2 mg/l, and then begin to die in large numbers when it goes below 1 mg/l.

In the Philippines, there is yet no comprehensive study about hypoxia, or the depletion or reduction of oxygen in water bodies, particularly on how aquatic species react under low-oxygen conditions.

Follow the stench: PCIJ checks other plants in Loma de Gato

EMB’s Aguilar said other chicken dressing plants in Marilao were inaccessible to inspectors. Sometimes, the pathway is dangerous.

To verify this claim, the PCIJ team trekked to Loma de Gato, Marilao’s most populated barangay and home to the biggest number of poultry dressing plants accredited by the Department of Agriculture’s National Meat Inspection Service (NMIS). 

While data from the NMIS showed that there were four dressing facilities in Loma de Gato, mostly tucked away in an area called Pook Looban 1, the information was hard to validate via on-site investigation even though the stench was all over the place. 

Most of what appeared to be industrial or commercial premises in Looban 1 didn’t have outdoor signages. Some establishments were enclosed by walls higher than roofs and trees, while others were smack in the middle of sprawling lots buffered from roadways.  

The PCIJ also failed to pinpoint dressing plants within Looban 1 via Google’s web and mobile apps. 

Asked by PCIJ during an interview in October 2019 if not having business signages was legal, Marilao BPLO chief Martin Armando C. Cruz said, “Hindi naman din (It isn’t).”

There should be an ordinance from the municipal council prohibiting the lack of signages, he said.  

Cruz also claimed that some establishments had opted not to install outdoor signages to avoid unwanted solicitations for money.

Much harder to locate were the dressing plants’ wastewater outfalls. Several times, the PCIJ team waded through the boggy and mosquito-infested edges of Marilao River’s tributaries to look for point-source pipes and drains.

POLLUTION HUNT: The PCIJ team had to wade through turbid and mosquito-infested creeks to look for direct wastewater sources in Brgy. Loma de Gato, Marilao, Bulacan. Photograph: Bernard Testa/PCIJ

In one field visit, the group walked by the roadside and saw a stream where the water was cascading, indicating that direct pollution sources could be farther upstream. 

But it was impossible to walk on the narrow banks of the stream sandwiched between an expansive walled property and a row of houses. 

Taking instructions from a resident, the PCIJ team tried to find another path toward the water body through an inner road that led to a cemetery. 

At the back of the graveyard, the team saw the stretch of the stream beside a nameless, walled establishment that appeared to be the extension of a property earlier seen by the team from the roadside. 

From the side of the establishment, the PCIJ team saw at least three outfalls protruding from the streambank that appeared to be connected to the walled property, which residents claimed was a poultry processing plant. 

Staggering on mossy rocks that stuck out of the streambed, the group inspected the muddy water body that was filled with strands of what looked like chicken feathers. 

The team also saw water  ̶  brown, orange, to reddish in color  ̶  gushing out of the three outfalls and into the stream. 

Too much phosphate 

Early morning on Oct. 25, 2019, the team returned to the area to get wastewater samples from two of the outfalls. The PCIJ had these tested again by the SRA lab for BOD, TSS, nitrate, phosphate, and color.

NO, NOT CHOCO DRINK, ORANGE JUICE, OR VINEGAR. The bottles containing wastewater samples from Pook Looban 1, Brgy. Loma de Gato in Marilao, Bulacan that the PCIJ brought to the laboratory of the Sugar Regulatory Administration in Quezon City on Oct. 25, 2019. Photograph: Annie Ruth Sabangan/PCIJ

Lab results showed that effluents from both outfalls failed in three of the five parameters’ effluent limits, namely BOD, TSS, and phosphate. 

Results indicated that the wastewater did not undergo treatment and had a very high degree of pollution, as BOD concentrations from the first and second outfalls were 5,584 percent and 4,850 percent higher than the government-set 50 mg/l-effluent limit, respectively. 

Also, phosphate concentrations in the effluents were markedly high. The phosphate content of the wastewater in the first outfall was over 8,000 times higher than the 1 mg/l limit set by the EMB, while in the second, the phosphate level was nearly 7,000 times greater than the cap.

Phosphate is used as a poultry product enhancer. The injection of water with phosphate salts into chicken meat is among the steps in poultry processing. This is done to help the protein in the meat bind more water and retain moisture and flavor.  

Researchers had found that the phosphorous-protein content of enhanced meat and poultry products was 28 percent higher than in the same types of product that didn’t use phosphate additives. 

This was according to a 2009 study titled “Phosphorous and Potassium Content of Enhanced Meat and Poultry Products: Implications for Patients Who Receive Dialysis,” by nephrologists Richard Sherman and Ojas Mehta of the New Jersey-based Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. 

In water bodies, too much phosphate is known to hasten eutrophication or the buildup of nutrients, causing microscopic plant-like organisms called phytoplankton to reproduce rapidly. 

This results in the overproduction of that slimy stuff called algae that can make water bodies appear green, brown, red or blue; and form foam, scum or oily films on their surfaces.

More algae mean higher consumption of dissolved oxygen in water, depriving aquatic life such as fish of the life-sustaining gas, leading to the latter’s death. 

The PCIJ team also had the ambient water quality of another Marilao River tributary in Looban 1 tested by the SRA laboratory. 

The group took samples after observing that the outflow of water into the creek, which was near high-walled establishments, was like a flood of frothy latte continuously pouring from a giant coffee machine. 

FROTHY LIKE CAFFE LATTE. The oxygen-depleted creek in Pook Looban 1, Brgy. Loma de Gato, Marilao, Bulacan. Image taken on Oct. 25, 2019. Photograph: Bernard Testa/PCIJ

Like Sapang Alat, the river tributary in Brgy. Sta. Rosa 1 earlier tested by the SRA, this creek in Brgy. Loma de Gato also failed the water quality standards set by the EMB on BOD, DO, TSS, nitrate, phosphate, and color.

But the pollution in this creek was much worse. Its demand for oxygen  ̶ 1,279 mg/l  ̶  was over 18,000 times higher than the EMB standard of 7 mg/l. Inversely, its oxygen concentration was extremely low at 1.16 mg/l.

Also, the phosphate level in the creek was way too high at 48 mg/l, or 9,500 times more than the limit of 0.5 mg/l for Class C water bodies or those, according to the EMB, that should be fit for aquatic resource propagation, fishing, boating, agriculture, irrigation, and livestock watering. 

Effective, lasting solutions needed 

Because of years of abuses by private companies amid weak environmental governance and the failure of regulation, Marilao River is dead and blackened by pollution.

Narrowed and shallowed by volumes of harmful contaminants, the barren and pernicious river can no longer repair itself. During high tide and heavy rains, it often threw up the wastes it could no longer absorb, submerging communities in toxic, persistent floods. 

More lasting and effective solutions are not in sight. Could it be time for a third-party entity to intervene and help fill the gap? 

Lawyer and environmentalist Galahad Pe Benito thinks so, and says the non-profit sector should take the lead. 

Benito, who used to practice in California and is now campaigning for the rehabilitation of the Manila Bay and the tributaries surrounding it, said environmental self-policing worked in other countries because people’s organizations were ready to “pounce on” pollutive business establishments. 

The SMR system is ineffective because compliance is weak and there are no nongovernment organizations (NGO) to countercheck the SMRs, he said.

Walang mga NGOs dito to do the counterchecking and everything…Dito mahina ang compliance natin, so medyo may problema onhow to implement that,” said Benito, who specializes in hazardous and toxic waste regulation, marine pollution, and pollution control. 

The responsibility of monitoring pollution point sources and evaluating SMRs can be assigned by the government to NGOs or to “respectable and independent auditors,” Benito said. 

NGOs’ access to SMRs should not be a problem because under the law, these reports are considered public documents. 

The procedural manual of DAO No. 2007-23 states that, “Upon completion of EMB’s evaluation, the SMRs are considered as public documents.” 

“As such, access [to] these documents by written request of the general public shall be allowed in accordance with applicable rules and regulations.”

The manual further noted that, “The SMR was designed in such a way that there is no need for confidential business information to be included in the submission.” — PCIJ, February 2021


This series was produced with the support of Greenpeace Southeast Asia-Philippines.— PCIJ

Marilao River polluters get away with small fines

The Clean Water Act of 2004 orders plants to pay discharge fees based on the volume of wastewater and pollutants that they release into water bodies. A self-monitoring mechanism in place allows polluters to report unreliable laboratory results, however.

BY ANNIE RUTH SABANGAN, ROBERT JA BASILIO JR., BERNARD TESTA AND RIC PUOD/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

Part 3 of 4

Part 1: The Bulacan town where chickens are slaughtered and the river is dead

Part 2: ‘The wastewater looked like mud’: EMB goes after Vitarich Corp.

What you need to know about Part 3: 

  • Many pollutive business establishments, including chicken dressing plants releasing their wastewater into the Meycauayan-Marilao-Obando River System (MMORS), pay the government paltry wastewater discharge fees ranging from P5 to P500. 
  • From February 2016 to August 2018, the DENR collected only P1.4 million worth of wastewater discharge fees from these establishments for the rehabilitation of the MMORS, a drop in the ocean compared with the P11.5-billion fund needed to help revive the long-dead river system. 
  • Regulators have identified 49 mostly toxic substances dumped by polluters into the river system. But environment officers admit they’re unable to detect the presence of these pollutants in water bodies, let alone make erring establishments pay fines. 
  • The Environmental Management Bureau in Region 3 lacks the manpower to check the accuracy of the environmental self-monitoring reports (SMR) being submitted to it by business establishments in Central Luzon.
  • A review of the SMRs submitted by seven poultry and meat processing and livestock establishments operating in Marilao, Bulacan showed that these had many glaring errors and inconsistencies — a proof of the bureau’s failure to vet the SMRs.

In 2019, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) issued violation notices to all but one of Marilao’s 11 chicken processing plants. They were punished not for polluting the Marilao River, however, but for technical violations related to their permits or failure to submit various reports.

Four plants in barangays Santa Rosa I, Santa Rosa II, and Patubig –– including two operating inside the compound of Vitarich Corporation –– had no wastewater discharge permits. 

The other plants in Brgy. Loma De Gato either didn’t have Environmental Compliance Certificates (ECC), violated their ECCs, expanded operations without permits, were late in renewing permits, or failed to submit wastewater lab results.

This was how the regional environment office was able to get around its lack of capability to catch and punish which plants were responsible for polluting the Marilao River, part of a river system in Bulacan province that dumps wastes into the Manila Bay.

“Ang ginagawa ho namin is bina-violate namin sila sa mga permit nila. Tapos…pagka hindi pa rin po sila nakakapasa…sa mga permit nila na ‘yon, tuloy-tuloy po ‘yong violation…nila (What we do is charge them with violations through their permits. If they fail to secure permits, their violations continue),” said Glenn Aguilar, a staff member of the DENR’s Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) in Region 3.

Infographic: Annie Ruth Sabangan and Angelica Carballo Pago/PCIJ

Environmental regulators said it had been a challenge to get water samples. “’Yung possible na ma-sampling-an, doon lang kami nagsa-sampling (We only conduct sampling in establishments where it’s possible to get wastewater samples),”Aguilar said. 

The chicken dressing plant of Vitarich Corp. was one of the few that EMB was able to inspect, and it was because its waste outfall was accessible, said Aguilar. “Sila (Vitarich) ang visible, talagang sila lang ang na-implicate (They’re the ones visible, thus they’re the only ones that got implicated),” he said.

Aguilar also accused the plants of making it hard for pollution inspectors to do their jobs. He said they would secretly turn off wastewater discharge when the inspectors arrived to inspect, preventing them from getting effluent samples in real time. It was also difficult for them to locate sewer pipes and waste outfalls especially inside residential compounds.  

Minsan hindi talaga umaamoy. Hindi sila nag-o-operate pagka napapadaan kami (They don’t smell [when inspectors go to check] because they make sure to shut down their operations when they know we are dropping by),” Aguilar said.

Lara Ibañez, Philippine country director of international non-profit environmental watchdog  Pure Earth, said it’s not enough to punish polluters over permits and other technicalities.

She called for the strict enforcement of the 2004 Clean Water Act, passed by Congress to make sure that a thorough accounting of industrial wastewater pollutants and their toll on the environment is conducted regularly. 

She said it’s important to be able to assess direct contributions of pollutive establishments and make them pay for the environmental and economic impacts of their discharges.

“We don’t see how much it (polluting water bodies) is really costing us,” Ibañez said in an interview in August 2019. She said the government should realize that implementing the Clean Water Act makes for sound economic policy because it will prevent environmental issues that have actually been costing the local government more. 

Pure Earth is the new name of Blacksmith Institute, the watchdog that has put a spotlight on the pollution of the Meycauayan-Marilao-Obando River System (MMORS). In 2007, the watchdog named Marilao in its list of 30 “dirtiest” places on earth.

Poultry farms such as this one in Barangay Loma de Gato in Marilao, Bulacan are required to treat their wastewater to curb water pollution in rivers. But several have been known to ignore regulations. Image taken on Sept. 14, 2019. Photograph: Bernard Testa/PCIJ

P5 to P500 wastewater discharge fees

The Clean Water Act imposes wastewater discharge fees, a fund intended to pay for the costs of government efforts to manage and clean up water bodies that absorb wastewater from industrial and commercial establishments. 

However, Ibañez said the fee turned out to be “self-defeating” and the amounts that establishments had been paying did not reflect the true cost of the pollution that they had caused.

From February 2016 to August 2018, EMB Region 3 only collected P1.4 million of wastewater discharge fees from 388 establishments along the entire MMORS, based on documents that EMB Region 3’s senior environmental management specialist Ramjay Dizon showed to PCIJ. 

It’s not commensurate with the P11.5 billion needed to rehabilitate the MMORS, based on experts’ estimates.

PCIJ’s analysis of the payments showed that almost half of them –– 167 establishments –– only paid between P5 and P500 in wastewater discharge fees. Only one establishment paid more than P50,000.

Infographic: Annie Ruth Sabangan and Angelica Carballo-Pago

The wastewater discharge fees are computed based on the volume and the pollution levels of wastewater that plants release. Each establishment is made to pay P5 for every kilo of pollutants multiplied by its annual net biological oxygen demand (BOD) and total suspended fluids (TSS) waste loads in kilos, or the difference between waste load in the untreated water and the final effluent. 

Ibañez said the formula is problematic. It only takes into account two out of 49 water quality parameters set by the EMB –– which include ammonia, boron, and chloride, arsenic, lead, and fecal coliform among others.

The wastewater discharge fee was intended to be a disincentive that would encourage the plants to modify their production practices and invest in pollution control technologies. The paltry fees accomplished the opposite, said Ibañez.

Isipin mo, it’s even more profitable to just pay. I can just pollute and pay kasi mas affordable ‘yon, kaysa maglagay ako ng pollution control (Come to think of it, it’s even more profitable to just pay. I can just pollute and pay because that’s more affordable than putting up pollution control facilities),” she said.

In Marilao, four chicken dressing plants paid wastewater discharge fees during the time period.

Central Luzon Poultry Growers Marketing Cooperative in Brgy. Loma de Gato paid P7,540 in November 2016, P10,675 in March 2017, and P9,486 in March 2018. 

Kaizen Food Enterprises, which operates under or with the Marilao Bulacan Processing Plant in Brgy. Patubig, paid P3,220 in July 2016. RG Dressed Chicken Processing Plant in Brgy. Loma de Gato shelled out P3,577 in the same month.

Vitarich Corp. and Alt Trading in Brgy. Sta Rosa I paid P39,715 in March 2017. 

Self-monitoring reports

The problem is more than the formula, however. Computations for wastewater discharge fees are based on the plants’ declarations in Self-Monitoring Reports (SMRs) that they are required to submit quarterly under the law. 

These SMRs have proven to be unreliable at best and manipulated at worst, according to regulators.

Wilma Uyaco, chief of the Clearance Permitting Division of the EMB’s National Capital Region (NCR) office, said the SMRs were intended to ease the burden of environmental regulators. “’Yung SMR, ‘yan ‘yung self-regulation na tinatawag. Kung ’yan ay magagampanan ng tama ng industries, e ’yun sana ang pinakamaganda kasi ang gobyerno hindi mahihirapan (That SMR is what is called self-regulation. It would be best if industries carried it out correctly so the government would no longer be burdened),” she said in an interview in October 2019. 

However, enforcement has been far from effective, Uyaco said. “E kaso ‘yong self-regulation, hindi pa ready. Kino-comply pero tingin namin hindi 100% totoo (But they’re not ready yet in terms of self-regulation. It is being complied with but compliance is not 100% truthful).”

The EMB’s NCR office co-chairs the governing board of the MMORS Water Quality Management Area with EMB Region 3.

Enforced since 2004, the SMR system has two objectives under DENR Administrative Order (DAO) No. 2003-27: (1) allow establishments to demonstrate compliance with environmental laws; and (2) allow the EMB to confirm or validate that these firms comply with these laws. 

Submitted every quarter, the SMRs are filled up by pollution control officers accredited by the DENR to report production capacities, actual outputs, number of operating hours in a day, number of workdays in a week, and quarterly water and electricity consumption. 

It also reports the volume, types, and names of industry-specific wastes generated, emitted, or discharged, and how establishments dealt with the environmental impacts of their byproducts.

For poultry processing plants, this means disclosing the total number of chickens dressed, volume of water consumed per day and per quarter, chemical wastes generated from processing chicken, and how these wastes were stored, transported, treated or recycled, and disposed of.

The report also includes the cost of treating wastewater, investments made in the water treatment plant, the location of the facility’s wastewater discharge, and the water body where the wastewater was discharged. 

Establishments must have their wastewater tested quarterly by a DENR-accredited third-party laboratory and report in their SMRs the concentrations of BOD, TSS, phosphate, acidity or pH, oil and grease, and nitrate, among others.

Sample copy of the first two pages of the 16-page SMR. Source: Department of Environment and Natural Resources
Sample copy of the portion of the 16-page SMR that asks establishments to provide data about the sources and treatment of their wastewater. Source: Department of Environment and Natural Resources

Wrong math, old lab tests, expired discharge permits

Uyaco said plants have cited unreliable lab tests in their SMRs, however, showing low oxygen demand in effluents to show that the treatment facilities of the establishments were effective in cleansing their wastewater. 

[S]ino ba naman ang maniniwala, septic tank lamang ang treatment facility nila pero ang result ng analysis na sina-submit sa SMR super mababa ’yung BOD?…Hindi ganoon katotoo ang result (Who would believe the results of the lab analysis in the SMR showing a very low BOD in wastewater, when an establishment’s treatment facility is just a septic tank? The results are not reliable),” she said.

About 50% of the submissions were inaccurate, said Mario Bangloy of the EMB-NCR’s Water and Air Quality Management Section in an interview with PCIJ in October 2019. 

(K)ung ‘yung sinasabi mo na hindi tama itong nire-report…medyo malayo sa (katotohanan), siguro kalahati (If you’re  asking about incorrect reports… those that are a bit far from the truth, maybe it’s half),” said Bangloy.

The PCIJ requested Uyaco to review 2018 SMRs of seven poultry and meat processing and livestock establishments operating in Marilao. She found at least three glaring errors –– wrong math, old lab tests, and expired discharge permits.

She found discrepancies between per quarter declarations of total water consumption and the breakdown of water usage in six SMRs. Uyaco cited at least one chicken dressing facility declaring to have consumed a total of 25,000 cubic meters (m3) of water during the third quarter of 2018, but the sum of its reported daily consumption of domestic water, cooling water, and process water showed it consumed more. Its total water usage for one quarter was 28,440 m3 or 3,440 m3 more than what it declared.

Saan nanggaling ang ibang tubig nila (Where did the rest of the water come from)?” Uyaco asked. 

While Uyaco didn’t want to second-guess the reasons behind the discrepancy, she said the mathematical errors resulted in lower fees for the plants. “(B)ababa ‘yong masisingil sa kanilang bayarin, ‘yung wastewater charges… kasi hindi nare-report ng tama (Collections from their wastewater charges would decrease because it’s not being reported correctly),” she said. 

Establishments have submitted old laboratory tests results, too. Uyaco spotted one chicken dressing establishment that used lab test results dated March 2018 for its SMR submitted for the third quarter.

Mali na itong date ng (lab) analysis n’yaDapat hahanapan ‘yan o dapat hindi ‘yan tinanggap. Bakit ‘yan ang report mo? (The date of the lab analysis is already wrong…They should have asked for a new lab test result or they should not have accepted the SMR. They should have asked the establishment why its report was like that),” said Uyaco, irked by her discovery. 

Like Vitarich Corp., many establishments were found to be using expired wastewater discharge permits. 

The establishments are required to write on the first page of their SMRs the wastewater discharge permit reference numbers, date the permit was issued, and the date it will expire. One poultry processing facility used a 2016 permit for its third-quarter filing in 2018. 

Of the seven Marilao-based poultry and meat processing and livestock establishments that Uyaco reviewed, six had expired wastewater discharge permits. Three had permits that expired as early as 2015 and 2016.  

Clearly, Uyaco said, these establishments must not only be compelled to correct their SMRs but also be made answerable for their violations. 

A “substantive evaluation” of the SMRs as mandated under DAO 2003-27 should have been done before the issuance of notices of deficiency against the erring establishments, she said.

If they were given time to address their deficiencies but were unable to solve the problem, the establishments should have been slapped with notices of violation, said Uyaco. 

Poultry processors tampering with wastewater samples?

There are allegations that plants have been tampering with their wastewater samples.

Kung ang treatment facility mo ay ganito tapos magsa-submit ng result ng analysis na ganoon kalinis, na ganoon kababa ang BOD, so makakapag-isip ka na something is wrong, or something has happened di ba? Ganoon ‘yun (So if your treatment facility is like this and then you submit results of water analysis as clean as that, with a very low BOD, then you make one think that something is wrong, or something has happened, isn’t it? It’s like that),” said Uyaco.

She said several cases have been reported to her by pollution inspectors.

(M)ay nagsasabi rin sa amin pag nag-i-inspect na ganito raw ang ginagawa ng third-party laboratory, dinadagdagan na ng chemicals ‘yung container…kaya pagdating doon mababa ang result (There were those who told us that upon inspection they would find out that this was what third-party laboratories do, they put chemicals into the container…that’s why when it reaches the lab, the result is low),” the EMB official said. 

Dinadaya talaga kasi intentional ‘yung ganoon. Kaya ’yun kung may mga info silang nakukuha, inilalagay ko ’yan sa reports (It’s being tampered with because those things are intentional. That’s why when they get pieces of information like that, I include them in the reports),” she added, referring to reports she writes in relation to the evaluation of SMRs.  

A DENR-accredited third-party laboratory housed at Ateneo de Manila University in Quezon City also confirmed the allegations. “It can [be tampered with]. That’s true,” Armando Guidote, director of the Philippine Institute of Pure and Applied Chemistry (Pipac), told the PCIJ in 2019.

Guidote, professor at the Ateneo’s Department of Chemistry, was quick to add that while tampering was possible, it did not necessarily mean that it was the result of collusion between a business establishment and a third-party lab, especially when the latter did not know where and how the wastewater samples were taken. 

“Our analysis is based on the samples that they (establishments) bring,” Guidote said.

At the EMB office in Region 3, Elisa Dimaliwat, chief of the bureau’s Environmental Monitoring and Enforcement Division at the time of her interview with PCIJ in 2019, said she would rather trust in the capability of establishments to do honest-to-goodness self-monitoring with the assistance of accredited third-party testing firms. 

She said the laboratories that analyzed the effluent samples of establishments went thorough screening by the DENR. “Naka-accredit ‘yan… kasi ang third-party lab hindi n’ya p’wedeng lokohin ‘yong resulta n’ya, masisira s’ya, ‘di ba po? (They’re accredited…Third-party labs can’t tamper with the results or they would ruin themselves, won’t they?)” Dimaliwat told the PCIJ. 

It would also be hard for companies to fabricate information in their SMRs as they would risk being shut down, she said.

Bangloy said not all inaccuracies were a result of deliberate moves to fake SMRs and cover up pollution.

SMRs require 200 pieces of information spread over six modules, he said. Incompetent pollution control officers or PCOs my be responsible for the errors.

“The [SMR] is so technical. Saan ka makakakita ng engineer [na PCO] sa isang gasolinahan? Mga cashier lang, mga ganoon… (The SMR is so technical. Where can you find an engineer working as a PCO in a gasoline station? Usually, cashiers and the like act as PCOs in these kinds of establishments),” he said.

DENR guidelines require establishments classified as big generators of pollution to hire licensed engineers or chemists with at least two years of relevant experience in environmental management. Small generators of pollution may hire graduates of technical courses related to the job, or they must have reached at least third-year college.

The PCOs may also be a professional in the fields of engineering or physical and natural sciences, with at least three years of relevant experience in environmental management, or a different field but with at least five years of experience. 

Too many reports, too few people, too little time

The EMB is supposed to exercise oversight of the self-monitoring process, validating their declarations and checking that they have complied with environmental requirements. 

SMRs found to be incomplete are supposed to be returned to the companies, which would have 30 days to revise and correct their reports.

But the bureau rarely returned incorrect SMRs. “Hindi madalas (Not often),” said Dizon of the EMB Region 3’s Environmental Monitoring and Enforcement Division, when the PCIJ asked him in late 2019.

Hindi nare-review lahat ng SMRs…Additional burden sa amin. Sa dami ng firms baka di namin kayanin (Not all SMRs can be reviewed…It’s an additional burden to us. We may not be able to review everything because there are so many firms),” added Vicente dela Cruz, chief of the division’s Chemicals and Hazardous Waste Management Section, in a phone interview in early 2019.

In 2018, a total of 3,816 business establishments from seven provinces submitted SMRs to the EMB office in Central Luzon, based on data culled by the PCIJ from the bureau’s Management Information System Unit.

If each establishment submitted four 16-page SMRs in a year, that meant that in 2018, a total of 15,264 SMRs consisting of 244,224 pages needed to be reviewed.

The Environmental Monitoring and Enforcement Division only had 15 staffers, according to Dizon. Each staffer would have needed to evaluate 1,018 reports — nearly 16,300 pages — if they were to review all of the reports.

What makes the work harder, said Dizon, is the limited time allowed under DAO 2003-27 — only 30 days — to act on problematic SMRs. The division also has other responsibilities.

After the 30-day period, the incorrect reports can no longer be reviewed and the deficiencies cited in the documents can no longer become the basis for the issuance of violation notices. 

The establishments can then go scot-free. — PCIJ, February 2021


Next: PCIJ brings water samples from Marilao River to a laboratory for testing

This series was produced with the support of Greenpeace Southeast Asia-Philippines.— PCIJ

‘The wastewater looked like mud’: EMB goes after Vitarich Corp.

Four reporting fellows of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) took a motorized boat to Marilao River to search for the outfall pipes of the town’s biggest chicken dressing plant. It wasn’t easy.

BY ANNIE RUTH SABANGAN, BERNARDINO TESTA, ROBERT JA BASILIO JR. AND RIC PUOD

Part 2 of 4

Read Part 1: The Bulacan town where chickens are slaughtered and the river is dead

What you need to know about Part 2:

  • A PCIJ team sails into Sapang Alat, a creek where Marilao’s biggest chicken dressing plant releases wastewater, and discovers how the water has turned into a garbage dump.
  • While the Municipal Health Office has the mandate to go after pollutive industries, it has not been able to exercise its powers.
  • A closure order from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’  Environmental Management Bureau finally prompted the operators of the dressing and rendering facilities of Vitarich Corporation to take action, but an environmental officer thinks the solution is unsustainable.

It was a rainy Tuesday and it was high tide at the Marilao River. On Sept. 24, 2019, when the coronavirus pandemic was still months away, a PCIJ team took a motorized outrigger boat into the river and embarked on a search for the waste pipe of a poultry processing plant.

The brown liquid waste that flowed from pipes jutting from the compound of Vitarich Corp., one of the country’s biggest poultry and feed firms, was visible from a window of the Municipal Health Office (MHO) of Marilao. Getting to its location in Sapang Alat (Salty Creek) wasn’t so easy, however. 

It was near impossible to wade through the sludge on the river bed. The team rented a boat in Brgy. Poblacion and sailed to the creek, a tributary of the Marilao River, and waited for high tide because otherwise the boat would be stuck in the shallow and rocky parts of the waterway. 

Marlo (not his real name), a fisherman who served as guide, knew the river like the palm of his hands; but the search would still turn out to be arduous. The waters were still, but the boat had to stop at least five times. Occasionally, Marlo had to reach into the putrid water with his bare hands to weed out the trash caught by the boat’s propeller. 

Baka hindi sa lunod ako mamamatay nito, baka sa dumi at baho (I will not die here because of drowning, but because of filth and stink),” quipped one of the team members.

It was almost one hour of this before the team reached the bridge at the mouth of the creek, where the water turned visibly foamy from the viscous effluents coming from drain pipes lining the riverside. The water body had been abused like this by residents and businesses alike, although some are more responsible for its death than others. 

It should have been a warning of what awaited the PCIJ team inside Sapang Alat, but the members were not prepared for what they saw when Marlo shut down the motor of the boat and turned the outrigger towards an inlet that leads to the creek. 

It was a garbage dump. The water turned a darker color, thicker, and filthier from a mix of solid and liquid waste. Marlo had to use a bamboo pole to propel the boat, which often got stuck in mounds of trash.

The fetid and filthy inlet in the Marilao River in Bulacan leading to a creek called Sapang Alat. Image taken in September 2019. Photograph: Bernard Testa/PCIJ

Dead fish floated on the water. A rotting tilapia was discolored and its eyes were missing. A disfigured janitor fish –– bloodied, bloated and burnt –– looked monstrous with its teeth exposed. 

Siguro napadpad sila dito, inanod noong nag-high tide. Patay na ‘tong sapa na ‘to e, wala nang mabubuhay na isda rito (Maybe they were carried here by the waters when it was high tide. This stream is dead. No fish will survive here),” Marlo said.

Glenn Aguilar, who monitors the river as staff of the Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) Region 3 office of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), linked the fish’s death to the absence of oxygen in the waters. 

“It’s an indication na patay na ‘yung tubigAng isda hindi siya mabubuhay kung walang oxygen (It’s an indication that the river is dead…. The fish can’t survive without oxygen),” Aguilar said in an interview later.

While the janitor fish is known to live and multiply even in polluted waters, Aguilar said it’s not capable of surviving in dead waters for a long time.

DEAD FISH IN A DEAD CREEK. A distended janitor fish found in Sapang Alat beside a chicken dressing plant in Brgy. Sta. Rosa 1, Marilao, Bulacan. Image taken in September 2019. Photograph: Annie Ruth Sabangan/PCIJ
REEKING CREEK. Poultry feces and innards floating in Sapang Alat, a tributary of Marilao River in Brgy. Sta. Rosa 1. Image taken in September 2019. Photographs: Annie Ruth Sabangan/PCIJ

The team also found a big plastic bag filled with creamy matter floating on the water. A stomach-turning smell was released when the receptacle was opened. It contained decaying chicken entrails. 

This part of the creek was flecked with a brownish and yellowish substance smelling like poultry feces, too.

The boat continued to follow the creek’s meandering course upstream, towards Vitarich Corporation’s outfall pipes. There was a place where trees grew and wild weeds crawled on the banks of the creek. One large tree was bedecked with dirty plastic trash. Here, where there was thick vegetation, bubbles of air rose from the water and made for an eerie atmosphere. 

TREE OF TRASH. The PCIJ team passes by a garbage-bearing tree as they sail upstream to look for more pollution point sources. Photograph: Bernard Testa/PCIJ

Finally, the sound of water rushing like a waterfall was heard. There it was –– the outfall pipe from the compound of Vitarich Corp. The team collected water samples.

The PCIJ team would later learn from the EMB and the Municipal Environment and Natural Resources Office (MENRO) that the pipe wasn’t from the dressing plant itself, but from the feather rendering facility that converts feathers of slaughtered poultry into animal feed ingredients. It was operated by PSP Aqua Resources, a business partner of Vitarich Corp. 

The PCIJ team would take another boat trip the following month, in October 2019, to Sapang Alat to collect more water samples. The team also set off to search for the drain pipes of other poultry processing plants in Brgy. Loma De Gato.

SHORT BUT ARDUOUS SAIL. Google satellite view of the area in Marilao, Bulacan where the PCIJ team boated and looked for pollution point sources in September and October 2019. Landmark icons by Annie Ruth Sabangan/PCIJ
Screenshot of a Google satellite map showing the proximity of Vitarich’s dressing and rendering facilities to the Marilao River, its tributary creek Sapang Alat, and the health office and municipal hall of Marilao, Bulacan. Landmark icons by Annie Ruth Sabangan/PCIJ

Cease-and-desist order

Eight months earlier, on Jan. 24, 2019, the EMB Region 3 office ordered two plants inside the compound of  Vitarich Corporation to “cease and desist” from releasing wastewater into Sapang Alat. 

EMB said the dressing and rendering plants –– operated by Alt Trading and PSP Aqua Resources, respectively –– did not have discharge permits. 

In two separate but identical violation notices, then EMB Region 3 Director Lormelyn Claudio said their treatment facilities were “not properly operated and [were] therefore discharging untreated wastewater,” which was a violation of the Clean Water Act. 

File photo of the waste outfall of Vitarich/ALT Trading’s chicken dressing plant in the margins of a creek in Brgy. Sta. Rosa 1, Marilao, Bulacan. Sapang Alat creek had solidified due to the unabated discharge of untreated effluents into the river tributary. Image taken in January 2019. Photograph: Bernard Testa/PCIJ

Three days after the cease and desist order was issued, on Jan. 27, Marilao’s environment officer Reynaldo Buenaventura accompanied EMB pollution inspectors to Sapang Alat to seal a canal that dumped wastewater from one of the Vitarich plants into the Marilao River. 

It was part of the national government’s efforts to clean up Manila Bay. On the same day, DENR Secretary Roy Cimatu declared from the Baywalk in the country’s capital the start of the rehabilitation of the bay. 

Marilao River is part of Meycuayan-Marilao-Obando River System that dumps wastes into the bay.

Ang tubig parang hindi na liquid e Parang lupa na. Ibig sabihin hindi na umaagos…. Nagso-solid na e (The water no longer looked like it was liquid. It looked like mud. It means it’s no longer flowing…it has solidified),” Buenaventura told PCIJ. 

Water sampling analyses conducted by the EMB showed that the plants’ wastewater discharges exceeded effluent limits. The polishing ponds –– which were supposed to improve the quality of the effluents before it was released into the river–– were no longer capable of cleansing wastewater at that time, according to Climaco Jurado of EMB Region 3’s Environment Monitoring and Enforcement Division.

The violation notices barred the plants from resuming operations until the issues were rectified.

Viscous liquid and solid wastes were clogging this polishing pond of Vitarich’s chicken dressing plant in Brgy. Sta Rosa 1, Marilao, Bulacan when pollution inspectors from the EMB in Region 3 went to the facility on Jan. 18, 2019. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/PCIJ

Vitarich sought to distance itself from the violation notices issued against the dressing and rendering plants inside its compound. While the company owned the two plants in question, Vitarich lawyer Mary Christine Dabu-Pepito told PCIJ that the plants were operated by its business partners.

“They are in the best position to answer whether these violations indeed occur and what were the steps they undertook to address the issues raised in the NOVs,” she said in a May 12, 2020 e-mail responding to PCIJ’s questions. 

“At any rate, Vitarich requires its business partners to operate within the bounds of law, including compliance with environmental laws and regulations,” she said.

Ramiro Osorio, officer in charge of the EMB’s legal office, disagreed. In an interview on Aug. 8, 2020, Osorio said Vitarich also bore responsibility because the company is the project proponent and holder of the environmental compliance certificates (ECC), issued to the rendering facility in October 1997 and the dressing plant in October 2008. 

The ECC “is a project-specific permit” that makes the proponent directly responsible for the project, he said.

Copies of the two 2019 stop orders obtained by the PCIJ from EMB-Region 3 showed that they were addressed to the president of Vitarich Corp., the operations manager of PSP Aqua, and the manager of Alt Trading. 

Wala pong pakialam ang DENR do’n kung sino ang nag-o-operate ng rendering plant. Kung sino ang nakapangalan sa ECC, sila ang ire-regulate namin (The DENR isn’t concerned with who operates the rendering plant. Whoever is named in the ECC is the entity we will regulate),” said Osorio.

Source of wastewater discharge

Eduardo Lazo –– an executive at both the chicken dressing and rendering plants –– said they did not secure a permit to discharge because the rendering facility was not supposed to have effluents. 

What happened was that wastewater from the dressing facility overflowed, he said, carrying chicken feathers from the rendering plant into a drainpipe. He maintained that the rendering plant did not release wastewater. To address this problem, he said PSP Aqua installed a separate pipe to catch raw feather materials and redirect them to a digestive chamber.

“The feathers must first be filtered out of water. Then the wastewater from it will pass through the dressing plant’s wastewater treatment facility. So wala na kaming discharge (So we no longer have a discharge),” he said.

Lazo said the discharge that PCIJ found gushing at the back of the Vitarich compound in September 2019 did not come from the rendering plant but from the ice plant that was also located within the premises. 

Does the ice plant need a discharge permit from the EMB? “I don’t think so…Ano ito e, tubig na malinis na galing sa pinagtabasan ng yelo (It’s just clean water that comes from ice cuttings),” said Lazo, referring to the effluent.

The wastewater samples collected by the PCIJ were warm. 

EMB-Region 3’s Jurado, who inspected the rendering facility in January 2019, rejected Lazo’s claim. In an interview on Oct. 14, 2019, Jurado said PSP Aqua was issued a CDO because it was “discharging without discharge permit.”

Kasi ang claim nila wala silang discharge kasi naka-line lang sila sa dressing plant. E noong pag-inspection namin, meron silang sariling wastewater discharge. Nakita talaga namin (ang) pipe galing sa kanila (Their claim was that they didn’t have a discharge because they were linked to the dressing plant’s wastewater treatment system. But when we inspected the facility, we found out that they had their own wastewater discharge. We really saw that they had their own pipe),” Jurado said.

Wala silang polishing pond (They didn’t have a polishing pond),” he added, referring to PSP Aqua’s lack of treatment facility for its own wastewater. 

MENRO’s environmental management specialist Dan Ezekiel Martin, who also inspected the rendering plant before the CDO was issued, also said that PSP Aqua had its own wastewater discharge.

Jurado said PSP Aqua fixed the problem after it  “re-channeled” its pipe to the dressing plant’s wastewater treatment facility.

Dressing plant’s wastewater treatment system overhauled

In October 2019, the EMB’s Environment Monitoring and Enforcement Division recommended the lifting of the CDO after the dressing and rendering plants rectified issues raised. 

It was around the time the PCIJ team made its second visit to Sapang Alat and, by then, the effluents were no longer spilling out as a result of the CDO.

Records from the Marilao government showed that the improvements coincided with the entry of a new business partner –– Barbatos Ventures Corp. –– to replace Alt Trading as Vitarich’s business partner to operate the dressing plant. Barbatos was granted a government sanitary permit on July 12, 2019.

The EMB also recognized the efforts to fix the treatment facility of the dressing plant, according to Glenn Aguilar of EMB-Region 3. “[I]naayos muna nila ‘yong treatment facility…. Pabalik-balik sila dito sa amin, pinapakita ‘yung [lab] results ng [wastewater] sampling nila (They fixed the treatment facility first…. They were here several times to show the lab results of their wastewater samples),” Aguilar told the PCIJ in an interview on Oct. 28, 2019. 

Lazo said Alt Trading complied with the EMB requirements. “The CDO was given to Alt Trading and they were able to fully comply,” Lazo told PCIJ during a July 21, 2020 interview. He was referring to the conditions set by the EMB, which included treating the effluent from the chicken dressing facility so that it could conform to the government’s wastewater quality standards.

Lazo said Barbatos also started a P6.1-million project, composed of a three-phase process, to overhaul the dressing plant’s wastewater treatment system. He said Barbatos knew that treating the facility’s wastewater wouldn’t be enough and an overhaul was needed as grass had grown on the pond and one could walk on the hardened scum., Phase 1, worth P2.3 million, included the installation of polyethylene liners on all five of the dressing plant’s treatment ponds to prevent the seepage of wastewater.  

Phase 2 involved the placement of floating aerators on three of the five ponds, which was worth P2 million.

Phase 3, which was in the pipeline at the time of Lazo’s interview with PCIJ in July 2020, would be the installation of a water clarifier and filtration system that would cost P1.8 million.

“When the system is in place, only clear water will come out of the last two ponds,” Lazo said. 

In a June 2, 2020 report, the Marilao government’s Joint Inspection Team (JIT) noted improvements in the dressing plant’s wastewater treatment facility. The discharge was clean and no longer smelly, according to the report signed by Buenaventura and business licensing head Martin Armando Cruz.

Lazo welcomed the results of the JIT inspection and said the “ultimate objective” of Barbatos was “to no longer need a permit from the DENR to discharge wastewater.”

“That’s because we will no longer generate wastewater. We will be able to recycle all the water we use,” he said. 

This remains to be seen, however. Dan Ezekiel Martin, the MENRO’s environmental management specialist who inspected Vitarich’s dressing facility with EMB staffers in 2019, saw a bigger sustainability challenge.

Production in the dressing plant kept increasing, but the size of the area for wastewater treatment remained the same, he said.

Kasi normally, sa gano’n kalaking dressing plant…dapat hectares ang usapan ng laki ng area ng [wastewater treatment] pond (Because normally in a dressing plant as big as that…we should be talking in terms of hectares of wastewater treatment pond),” Martin told the PCIJ in an interview in September 2019, noting that there were only five waste stabilization ponds in the facility.

As of 2018, the production capacity of the dressing plant was 50,000 a day or 1.2 million birds a month, based on the self-monitoring report (SMR) submitted by Alt Trading. It was over three times its production capacity a decade earlier, in 2008, when it had an output of only 15,000 birds a day.

Stench lingers

Despite the interventions, however, Lazo admitted the facility would continue to stink.

Kasi…hindi mo puwedeng sabihin na 100% mawawala ang amoy, kasi you’re dealing here with waste. Iyong raw feathers may malansang amoy na ‘yan kasi (You can’t say that the odor will be gone 100% because you are dealing here with waste. The raw feathers already have a fishy smell),” Lazo said.

Lazo claimed that the rendering plant was necessary because it solved Marilao’s waste disposal problem. 

“If, say, Marilao dresses 300,000 chickens a day, that means producing 30 tons of feather waste daily if you don’t have a rendering plant…. No dumpsite will accept that huge volume of waste. It’s a high-maintenance waste. You have to bury it and address the odor. Decaying feathers smell like dead humans,” he said.

Like hair, chicken feathers are made up of fibrous protein called keratin that is resistant to being biodegraded or decomposed by bacteria, he explained.

The Business Permits and Licensing Office (BPLO) shared Lazo’s position. BPLO chief Amado Cruz said Vitarich’s rendering plant also collected chicken feathers from other dressing plants in the town and helped address poultry waste disposal in Marilao and the entire Bulacan province. 

Kasi…kung itatapon mo itong feather sa basurahan or sa isang sanitary land facility, mapupuno tayo sa dami ng residual feather…kung walang centralized na rendering plant dito sa Vitarich (We would all be swamped with feathers if you threw these in the trash can or in a sanitary land facility and…if there’s no centralized rendering plant in Vitarich),” he said, stressing that feathers don’t decompose easily in a landfill. 

Sanay na ang mga tao dito sa amoy…. Alam nila ‘yung nature ng business kaya alam din nila pag ‘yun pinasara, mawawalan ng workers (The residents are used to the smell…. They know the nature of the business that’s why they also know that if it would be closed, there would be no more workers),” he added. — PCIJ, February 2021

This series was produced with the support of Greenpeace Southeast Asia — Philippines.

Next: Poultry processing plants responsible for the pollution of Marilao River have gotten away with small fines.— PCIJ

The Bulacan town where chickens are slaughtered and the river is dead

In this four-part investigative report, PCIJ shows how poultry processing plants in the town of Marilao in Bulacan have dumped untreated or undertreated wastewater into the dead Marilao River.

BY ANNIE RUTH SABANGAN, ROBERT JA BASILIO JR., BERNARD TESTA AND RIC PUOD/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

Part 1 of 4

What you need to know about Part 1:

  • The town of Marilao in Bulacan province has the biggest number of chicken dressing plants nationwide, slaughtering more than 24 million chickens yearly.
  • The annual operations of chicken dressing plants in Marilao produce an estimated 169,000 cubic meters of wastewater or enough to fill up 68 Olympic-size pools.
  • This huge volume of wastewater is regularly released into the Marilao River, a major tributary of the Manila Bay, which was declared biologically dead in 1989.
  • Lack of resources and personnel prevents municipal government offices from gathering sufficient evidence to establish the extent that the dressing plants are responsible for the pollution of the river.
  • There were efforts to revive the river, but so far failed. 

You know you’ve reached Marilao, a booming municipality in Bulacan province that’s usually less than an hour’s drive from Manila, when a putrid smell of some biological degradation invades your nostrils. Here you will find a cluster of chicken dressing and rendering plants, which have become undesirable landmarks for the town in Central Luzon. 

Kapag sumasakay ako ng jeep galing Muzon, kahit nakapikit alam kong nasa Marilao na ako dahil sa amoy (When I ride a jeep from Muzon, I can tell that I’m already in Marilao even when my eyes are closed because of the smell),” said a female resident, referring to her regular commute to Brgy. Sta. Rosa 1 in Marilao from Brgy. Muzon in nearby San Jose del Monte City.

Marilao’s foul odors, coming from the Marilao River and its tributaries, are so notorious that it is the occasional subject of contempt on social media. The culprit, according to residents, are the poultry processing plants in the adjacent barangays of Santa Rosa I, Santa Rosa II, Patubig, and Loma de Gato that release wastewater to the river.

The smell is worse during dry season, residents said, when there’s no rainwater to dilute and dull the odor of the polluted water.

Bata pa ako naaamoy ko na ‘yan. Ang anak ko, may asthma. Sabi ng pedia huwag siyang i-expose sa amoy at huwag paglaruin sa daan. Mahina raw kasi ang baga niya (I’ve been smelling that foul odor since I was young. My child has asthma. The pediatrician said he should not be exposed to the smell and should not play on the street because his lungs are weak),” said another resident operating a carinderia or eatery in the same barangay.

Marilao has the country’s biggest number of poultry processing facilities, slaughtering tens of millions of chickens annually to supply fresh and freshly frozen food to consumers nationwide.

Of the 149 poultry dressing plants accredited by the Department of Agriculture’s National Meat Inspection Service as of November 2019, almost one-fourth or 34 facilities are in Region 3 or Central Luzon. (See infographic 1)

Twenty are operating in Bulacan province and 11 of them are in Marilao. The industry was among the top employers in the town, according to the Business Permit and Licensing Office, with each plant providing jobs to about 300 residents. (See infographic 2)

It’s a thriving industry that has helped turn Marilao into the richest town in the province, tripling its revenue in the last decade to P793 million in 2018.

Like many industrial towns in the country, however, Marilao has struggled to strike a balance between economic growth and environmental protection.

Infographic 1: Annie Ruth Sabangan/PCIJ

Infographic 2: Annie Ruth Sabangan/PCIJ

Poultry processing uses water to turn broilers into meat products that are safe for human consumption. In Marilao, wastewater from the establishments flow into waterways connected to the Marilao River.

Seven of the 11 poultry processing facilities in the town discharge their effluents to a creek, either from the “rear end of the last pond,” “compartment,” or “tank” of their wastewater treatment plants, based on self-monitoring reports (SMR) that the plants filed with the DENR in 2018. (There is no data available to PCIJ on the other four dressing plants.)

The same seven dressing plants reported using nearly 169,000 cubic meters of water annually to slaughter 24 million chickens. That’s enough wastewater to fill up 68 Olympic-size swimming pools. (See infographic 3.)

Infographic 3: Annie Ruth Sabangan and Angelica Carballo Pago/PCIJ

Water is a huge requirement for poultry processing plants. Workers dip the heads of the chickens into electrified water to put them to sleep, and use hot water to loosen and pluck the feathers. They need chlorinated water to wash equipment for removing the chicken’s internal organs and thoroughly rinsing their carcasses. They also use chilled water to protect poultry meat from bacteria. 

Foodnorthwest.org, a trade association in the U.S., estimates that approximately 3.5 to 7.0 gallons of water is required to dress each chicken with an average slaughter weight of four pounds. Using this ratio, PCIJ computation shows that between 10 billion and 19 billion liters of water were used to slaughter 763 million heads of chicken killed for food in the Philippines in 2019, based on figures from the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA).

If untreated or undertreated, wastewater from the plants releases oxygen-depleting and fish-killing pollutants such as ammonia, nitrate, phosphate, and total suspended solids.

The succeeding parts of this investigative series will show evidence that this was the case in Marilao. 

Infographic 4: Annie Ruth Sabangan and Angelica Carballo Pago/PCIJ
Infographic 5: Annie Ruth Sabangan and Angelica Carballo Pago/PCIJ

Residents’ complaints

Residents have long complained about the operations of the poultry processing plants, believing that their constant exposure to the foul odors has aggravated their illnesses.

Diyan nanggagaling. Abot ang amoy hanggang doon sa bahay namin sa Patubig (That’s where it comes from. The smell reaches our house in Brgy. Patubig),” complained an aging female tuberculosis patient. She particularly blamed a big poultry processing plant in Brgy. Santa Rosa 1 near the Marilao exit of the North Luzon Expressway, for the reeking smell of Sapang Alat (Salty Creek), a clogged and heavily polluted creek adjoining the Marilao River.

The Municipal Health Office (MHO) is aware of the residents’ complaints and their concerns about the possible dangers to their health, according to Evelyn San Miguel, one of only two sanitation inspectors at the MHO.

She also has a good view of the outfall from the compound of one of the poultry processing plants –– where the liquid waste from its plants falls out from its pipe –– from a window of the MHO building. “Brown ‘yung inilalabas (The discharge is colored brown),” San Miguel said in an interview in September 2019, the same month that PCIJ sailed into Sapang Alat.

The fetid and filthy inlet in the Marilao River in Bulacan leading to a creek called Sapang Alat. Image taken in September 2019. Photograph: Bernard Testa/PCIJ

San Miguel said they forwarded these complaints to the Business Permit and Licensing Office (BPLO) and the Municipal Environment and Natural Resources Office (MENRO). 

The chief of the BPLO, Martin Armando Cruz, downplayed the residents’ complaints, however. While the poultry business was the most “water-intensive” of all industries in Marilao, he told PCIJ he didn’t think the poultry business was among the most pollutive.

Cruz said the poultry processing plants were releasing chlorinated but clear water, a claim that was contradicted by other interviewees for this report and PCIJ’s own findings.

“‘Yung wastewater naman nun puti…. Madaling i-clear [kasi] walang chemicals e. Chlorine lang. Kayang-kayang linisin (The wastewater they release is white…. It can easily be treated because there are no chemicals. It’s just chlorine. It’s easy),” Cruz told PCIJ in an interview in October 2019, referring to the effluents discharged by the dressing plants. 

Cruz conceded that the fetid odor from the plants, particularly from the town’s biggest plant along Sapang Alat, were a nuisance. But he didn’t think it was the cause of the illnesses of Marilao residents. 

“Yes, [it’s a] nuisance. But is it pollutive? Nakamamatay (Is it deadly)? Nakakasakit (Does it cause illnesses)? Sa aming observation, hindi naman (Based on our observation, it’s not),” Cruz said. 

Cruz was inclined to believe that domestic wastes caused more harm to the river than the wastewater from Marilao’s industries, although he admitted that the LGU had made no assessment of the chicken dressing industry’s wastewater.

Hindi kasi kami nagtse-check no’n, wala kaming testing ng water…ang DENR ang [in-charge] do’n (We don’t check that, we don’t conduct water testing…the DENR is the one in-charge of that),” said Cruz.

The residents interviewed for this story requested to hide their names out of fear that the business establishments would go after them for their comments.

A dead river

The Marilao River, a tributary of Manila Bay, has been biologically dead since 1989. It can no longer sustain any life form. 

For fish and other aquatic species to survive and thrive in a freshwater resource like the Marilao River, the water body needs to contain 5 milligrams of dissolved oxygen (DO) per liter of water (mg/l), according to DENR standards.

But the DO levels in the river have not even reached 3 mg/l in the last decade, based on tests conducted by the Region 3 office of the DENR’s Environmental Management Bureau (EMB), which conducts ambient water quality tests on the river. 

Meycauayan River is already likely to be low in oxygen levels, causing several marine animals — including fish — to die. Photograph: Bernard Testa/PCIJ

Scientists call this condition “hypoxia,” a depletion or reduction of oxygen in water bodies that turn them into “biological deserts” or “aquatic cemeteries.” 

The river’s biological oxygen demand (BOD), which represents the amount of oxygen consumed by bacteria while they decompose organic matter in the water, has been rising, too. 

The river’s BOD should not exceed 7 mg/l under better circumstances because, above that level, bacteria will use more oxygen to decompose wastes and thus rob fish and other aquatic animals of survival gas. However, EMB tests showed that the recorded BOD level of Marilao River was a high of 44.52 mg/l in 2018 or four times its level of 11.09 mg/l in 2008. It was an indication that pollution had worsened throughout the last decade.

This is a shared challenge among the industrial towns in Bulacan. The Marilao River is part of the Meycauyan-Marilao-Obando River System (MMORS), a heavily polluted river system that is considered the second top pollution source of Manila Bay.

MMORS is responsible for about a third of the organic matter going into the historic natural harbor in the country’s capital, next only to Pasig River, which accounts for 60%, according to a study by the Partnerships in Environmental Management for the Seas of East Asia, implemented by the United Nations Development Programme.

Infographic 6:  Annie Ruth Sabangan and Angelica Carballo Pago/PCIJ

Other industries are polluters, too

While residents point to the responsibility of the poultry processing industry for the pollution of Marilao River, the local government doesn’t have the capacity to gather sufficient evidence to establish the extent that the industry is at fault.

The poultry processing facilities are certainly not the only polluters of the river, which is host to households and other types of industries that produce different types of waste. There are metal and textile factories, manufacturers of plastic products, biscuit and bread makers, and soap and detergent businesses, among others.

Which of these entities contribute the most pollutants to the river? What businesses or industry sectors have effluents with the highest BOD or ammonia? Which ones discharge the most volume of sludge laden with toxic and non-biodegradable heavy metals like lead, arsenic, and mercury? 

Along or near the Marilao River’s Expressway Bridge alone — one of three water sampling stations in the river — there are almost 2,000 commercial entities spread in nine Marilao barangays. Tabing Ilog, Patubig, Sta. Rosa I, Sta. Rosa II, Saog, Lambakin, Loma de Gato, Prenza I, and Prenza II are the town’s business hubs.

The Region 3 office of the EMB also earlier identified 433 establishments in the entire Central Luzon whose wastewater flows into the MMORS.

Which ones among them don’t have wastewater treatment plants or have inefficient effluent cleansing facilities? What businesses are the worst river and fish killers? It would take special types of tests to determine all this.

In an interview in September 2019, when PCIJ was starting this investigation, Marilao Municipal Environment and Natural Resources Office (MENRO) chief Reynaldo Buenaventura admitted they still couldn’t measure the extent of pollution from particular plants or industry sectors because of lack of resources and personnel. 

Marilao is only capable of employing “end-of-pipe” pollution solutions, which requires cleaning up wastes when these have already polluted the river, he said.

May river patrol boat kami, dalawa, galing sa DENR. Araw-araw silang nagpa-patrol pero ‘yung solid waste lang ang nakukuha (We have two river patrol boats from the DENR. The boats patrol every day but they only collect solid waste),” Buenaventura said.

EMB’s usual ambient water quality tests, which gather “primary parameters” such as dissolved oxygen, biological oxygen demand, and other conventional pollutants, don’t trace the sources of pollution, either.

These tests can only give hints and symptoms of the water pollution problem in the Marilao River, but not its direct causes, said Glenn Aguilar, among the EMB staffers in Region 3 who monitor the river.

Failed efforts to revive the river

Several administrations attempted to revive the Marilao River, but efforts have failed to reverse its DO and BOD levels.

The Marilao River was among the 19 priority rivers monitored by the DENR under its “Sagip Ilog” (Save the River) Program, a 2004 initiative that sought to improve the river’s water quality by raising dissolved oxygen levels.  

In 2004, the Marilao River Council was formed to rehabilitate the water body. A project called “Clean the Marilao, Meycauayan, and Obando River System” was launched, involving local government units (LGUs), the EMB, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, the river councils, and the Asian Development Bank. They envisioned a “fishable, swimmable, and drinkable” river system. 

In 2005, Marilao became a part of a stakeholders’ group composed of the three LGUs that have jurisdiction over the MMORS. As a major tributary of Manila Bay, the heavily polluted river system in Bulacan became a focus of efforts to rehabilitate the natural harbor.

There was little to show for all these efforts, however. In 2007, Marilao, along with its neighbor, Meycauayan City, suffered global disgrace after New York-based environmental watchdog Blacksmith Institute included the town in its list of 30 “dirtiest places” on earth. The list raised an alarm over how the town’s industrial wastes were being “haphazardly dumped” into the river. 

In 2008, the Supreme Court issued a continuing mandamus or order to the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) and 12 other agencies to clean up and preserve Manila Bay, resulting in renewed attention to the Marilao River. The mandamus stemmed from a January 1999 petition by a group of residents, who won the case in a Cavite court and the Court of Appeals. Ten government agencies, including the DENR and the DILG, appealed to the Supreme Court and lost.

The order prompted Marilao’s MunicipalPlanning and Development Office (MPDO) to conduct an inventory of commercial establishments and households adjacent to the Marilao River and its tributaries, supposedly to pinpoint pollution hotspots. 

What did they find out? Nearly 60% of the 756 households identified did not have septic tanks, while 71% of 91 business establishments had no wastewater treatment facilities. 

It was the first and last comprehensive inventory of households and businesses near the river, said Edmundo Canape, a senior staffer at the MPDO, who signed the 2009 report. Succeeding inventories would only check a percentage of the commercial establishments and households.

In 2011, the Supreme Court again issued a resolution enjoining government agencies and local governments surrounding Manila Bay to implement the 2008 mandamus. The high court cited the 42-year-old Presidential Decree 1152 or the Philippine Environmental Code, which requires all local governments to implement a waste management program.

Part of the directive was for LGUs to address water pollution at source by (1) inspecting all factories, commercial establishments, and homes along the banks of the major river systems in their areas; (2) determining if they have wastewater treatment facilities or hygienic septic tanks based on specifications prescribed by law; and (3) requiring non-complying establishments and homes to set up facilities or tanks within a reasonable time. Otherwise, they faced fines or closure. 

Still, the pollution of the Marilao River continued to worsen.

In 2017, then Marilao Mayor Juanito Santiago issued Executive Order 2017-09 for the town to comply with the High Court’s 2011 resolution. 

In 2018, the DILG flagged Marilao’s weakness in environmental governance. The municipality got a score of 45.91% in a DILG assessment and was one of 19 towns and cities in Bulacan that scored below the passing mark of 75%.

The DILG found that Marilao didn’t follow the Supreme Court directive when it inspected only 15% of the target number of septic tanks and wastewater treatment facilities. No single notice of violation was also issued by the LGU against establishments that failed to comply with Republic Act 9275 or the Clean Water Act of 2004. 

The DILG also noted the town’s failure to relocate informal settlers living along the river banks.

No environmental officer for a long time

In the wake of its failing marks from the DILG, Marilao’s MPDO took new steps to address water pollution at source. 

Based on a 2019 report provided by MPDO staffer Salvador Ramirez to PCIJ, they inspected about 1,000 homes in 16 barangays yearly — a small percentage out of some 50,000 total households — from 2016 to 2018. Notably, the inventory didn’t include business establishments.

The MPDO was simply undermanned. The office established the Marilao River Inspection, Inventory and Monitoring Team (MRIIMT) to attend to its old problem, but Ramirez said this team was a one-man squad. 

“So that time…kami lang dito. Ako. Ako ‘yung bumababa (So that time…it was just us here. It was just me. I was the only one who went to the field to inspect),” said Ramirez.

It was only in 2018 that Marilao would create the Municipal Environment and Natural Resources Office (MENRO) and hire Buenaventura to become its environmental officer. 

The Local Government Code of 1991 does not require the designation of an environmental officer. The town apparently never found the need to have one until Buenaventura was appointed to the post in January of that year. He would later assume the tasks from the MPDO.

In 2019, PCIJ asked Buenaventura if it was possible to send the LGU’s river patrol team to go after dressing plants found dumping untreated effluents into narrow, muddy and clogged tributaries.

Buenaventura dismissed it. “Hindi maaabot ng bangka ‘yun (That can’t be reached by the boats),” he said. 

A PCIJ team discovered it was an arduous task, but it was doable under the right conditions.  — PCIJ, February 2021

This series was produced with the support of Greenpeace Southeast Asia — Philippines.

Next: PCIJ reporting team takes a boat to Marilao River to search for the outfall pipe of a notorious poultry processing plant.— PCIJ

Philippine mines continue unhampered 4 years after Gina’s shutdown order

In Benguet, critics are dismayed and wary of environmental degradation and natural disasters. The Chamber of Mines of the Philippines is also waiting for Malacañang to resolve the suspensions and “move mining forward.”

BY MARIA ELENA CATAJAN/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

What you need to know about this story:

  • The late DENR Secretary Gina Lopez’s closure and suspension orders against 28 mines in 2017 were not implemented following a review ordered by Malacañang.
  • A culture of non-implementation of environmental regulations has allowed mining companies to evade sanctions, according to former DENR undersecretary Antonio La Viña, a responsible mining advocate.
  • Residents of two towns in Benguet are worried over the likelihood of disasters in mine sites and environmental destruction.

BAGUIO CITY — In July 2016, in one of her first acts as environment secretary, Regina “Gina” Lopez ordered an industry-wide audit of 41 large-scale mines in the country. Seven months later, 23 metallic mines received closure orders and five others were told their operations would be suspended. 

A statement issued by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) dated Feb. 2, 2017 cited “serious environmental violations.” 

“My issue here is social justice. If there are businesses and foreigners that go and utilize the resources of that area for their benefit and the people of the island suffer, that’s social injustice,” Lopez said in a press conference that day. 

It was a quick move rarely seen against an industry that has significant contributions to the national economy. Mining stocks plunged.

Mining companies are big employers in rural areas –– over 180,000 workers nationwide, not counting indirect jobs created –– and contributed 0.5 percent to the economy in 2019. 

In Benguet, a mineral-rich province in the Cordillera region, mayors of two mining towns covered by the order welcomed Lopez’s bold move albeit concerns for thousands of residents who stood to lose their jobs. 

Operations of Benguet Corp. (BC) in Itogon and Lepanto Consolidated Mining Company (LCMC) in Mankayan were ordered closed and suspended, respectively. They are among the country’s oldest mines. 

Itogon Mayor Victorio Palangdan has had a strenuous relationship with Benguet Corp., at times finding the company responsible for his town’s environmental problems. He is also backing demands of indigenous people’s organizations, which claim ancestral rights to the land, for a bigger share of BC’s profits.

Mankayan Mayor Frenzel Ayong also supported a closer look into Lepanto’s operations. “It’s a welcome development for the government to look into the details of the operation [of LCMC] as well as its compliances with the law,” he said. 

Four years after Lopez’s crackdown,Benguet’s mines continue to operate to the dismay of civil society groups. Benguet Corp. and Lepanto did not cease operations except during strict lockdowns last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The mines that were served with closure orders by former DENR Secretary Gina Lopez were not closed at all and are operating after some of them appealed their cases to the Office of the President and the others to the DENR itself,” said Rocky Dimaculangan, Chamber of Mines of the Philippines (CMP) vice president for communications and national coordinator towards sustainable mining.

“If there are companies among the firms in the first round of MICC audit that were compelled to suspend their operations, it could be because of other violations outside the audit,” he said.

The mining companies immediately appealed their cases to President Rodrigo Duterte in 2017. The shutdown orders were put on hold amid warnings from the CMP then that shutting down mining companies would put 67,000 jobs at risk and cost the government up to P16.7 billion in taxes.

A Lepanto miner works underground in Mankayan, Benguet. Photograph: Lauren Alimondo/PCIJ

In Cordillera alone, mining companies employ close to 17,000 workers, with over 7,000 in large-scale mines and 10,000 in small-scale mines.

Duterte ordered the Mining Industry Coordinating Council (MICC) to review DENR’s audit. Lopez, who co-chaired the interagency body with Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III, questioned the review.

Three months later, in May 2017, Lopez was kicked out as environment secretary after the Commission on Appointments rejected her nomination. She died two years later after a battle with brain cancer.

In an e-mailed response to PCIJ’s questions, Malacañang said it could not disclose its basis for allowing the mining firms to operate despite Lopez’s orders as it was “protected by the deliberative process privilege.” 

“Albeit the proceedings herein are quasi-judicial in character, publicly divulging information and records, which include information on the nature of the case, violations allegedly committed, arguments of the parties, and other filings and pleadings made thereon by mining contractor-parties, relative to pending cases before this office is a violation of the sub judice rule as it constitutes blatant disregard of the same evils sought to be prevented by said rule,” said Ryan Alvin Acosta, deputy executive secretary for legal affairs.

‘Culture of non-implementation’

There has been no word about the MICC review or a final decision from Duterte on the mining companies that appealed to his office, although the DENR under Secretary Roy Cimatu in the last four years has upheld the closure of several mining companies and allowed others to operate again.

In Benguet, the Cordillera People’s Alliance (CPA) slammed the failure to implement Lopez’s orders against Benguet Corp. and Lepanto.

“The audit was the result of the long-standing struggle of the affected communities against the destructive operations of the mines. However, the suspension was never implemented. No mines in the Cordillera ceased their operation,” said Santos Mero, vice chairperson of the coalition fighting for the rights of indigenous peoples in the region.

Fay Apil, director of the DENR’s Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) in Cordillera, said they were still waiting for the MICC to confirm or refute Lopez’s audit on the two mines.

This goes to the “culture of non-implementation” of laws and regulations that has plagued the mining industry, said former DENR undersecretary Antonio La Viña, an advocate of responsible mining.

“It should have been decided quickly. This is why there is so much conflict in the mining industry. It’s an inherently risky activity and there are clear rules, but when rules are violated they are not enforced,” he said.

The DENR should also make sure its cases are airtight, he said, as mining companies have the money to pay the best lawyers.

La Viña said one thing going against the mining industry was its problematic public image because of a history of mining disasters.

“In theory, responsible mining is possible. The mining companies must follow the law. It needs strict compliance because of the destructive nature of the activity,” he said. 

In one of the country’s worst mining catastrophes, the 1996 Marcopper disaster in Marinduque province released 1.6 million cubic meters of toxic mine tailings into the Boac River when a drainage tunnel was fractured. It caused illnesses that residents suffer to this day.

In Itogon in September 2018, 19 months after Lopez issued a closure order on Benguet Corp., disaster struckasclose to 100 small-scale miners taking refuge in a company bunkhouse and a church during the onslaught of Typhoon “Ompong” (international name: “Mangkhut”) were buried in a landslide. 

Palangdan blamed the tragedy on Benguet Corp.’s operations, but the company pointed to illegal small-scale mining that it said it didn’t control. The bodies of the miners were not recovered. 

Miners rest in this bunkhouse near Benguet Corporation’s office in Itogon, Benguet. Photograph: Jean Nicole Cortes/PCIJ

Philippines’s oldest operating mines

Benguet Corp. has been in Itogon for more than a century, the oldest operating mine in the country. It started open-pit and underground mining operations in the town in 1903, employing thousands to extract ores of gold, nickel and silver. 

It ended its underground operations in 1992. But when pocket miners invaded the Acupan tunnel –– one of two underground mines that formed the company’s gold operations –– the company opened it to investors and established the Acupan Contract Mining Project (ACMP).

ACMP saw a large-scale operator and groupings of small-scale miners working together under a mine lease agreement while it prepared the mines for the final phases of rehabilitation and decommissioning.

Benguet Corp. lawyer Froilan Lawilao said it was the first of its kind. MGB hailed it as a model for partnership between a large-scale corporate mine operator and small-scale miners. 

Sixteen mining associations and cooperatives, involving up to 1,000 small-scale miners, operate their own pocket mines under a 60-40 profit sharing agreement. 

Lopez however thought the economic benefits to the community did not outweigh the environmental dangers. She ordered the Itogon mines closed after the DENR audit found Benguet Corp. liable for the October 2016 mine tailings spill that contaminated a 1.6-kilometer stretch of the river.

The audit report said the company committed the following violations:

  • operating a prohibited controlled disposal facility;
  • maintaining and storing toxic and hazardous materials without an accredited Treatment Storage and Disposal (TSD) facility;
  • failing to install air pollution control devices and apply for a permit to operate upon installation, and 
  • failing to rehabilitate the Antamok open-pit mine after it ceased its operations.

Benguet Corp. received the show-cause order on Oct. 28 and filed its reply on Nov. 1. The company claimed it had proof the findings were altered from an original version that declared the company compliant with mining laws.

Lawilao said company officials were told by DENR inspectors that Benguet Corp. passed the audit. A memorandum dated Aug. 16, 2016 stated that the company had complied with all legal and technical standards and “contributed to the local economy, except for some minor lapses.”

Lawilao also noted inconsistencies in the audit report, where the auditors allegedly interchanged the sites of Benguet Corp. with Lepanto. “These inconsistencies are serious and [indicates] the mine audit report was haphazardly prepared,” he said.

More disturbing was the “generalized finding of deficiencies for BC and Lepanto,” he claimed. 

Benguet Corp., he explained, did not rehabilitate the Antamok open-pit mine because its operations were merely suspended. There are plans to reopen it. 

And because Benguet Corp. began operations before the Mining Act of 1995, it was not required to deposit an approved amount for rehabilitation once operations cease.

When small-scale miners’ rushed to the Antamok mine site, it eventually prompted Benguet Corp. to apply for final decommissioning, which will turn the area into a Minahang Bayan. This will allow small-scale miners to operate legally and under the government’s radar.

Lawilao said the infractions committed by the company were “mostly permitting issues or operational concerns” that could be fixed without stopping their operation. Executives were surprised when they saw the news in September 2016 that Benguet Corp. was among the companies recommended for closure, he said. 

“In a nutshell, we alleged that we were issued a stoppage order without any basis. The audit findings are not bases to suspend the mining company’s operation because these are minor offenses. We were just advised to implement remedial measures, like to register the [tailings] dam,” he said.

Benguet Corporation’s Tailings Storage Facility Dam No. 2 in Itogon, Benguet. In 2020, the company’s plan to raise the level of the dam was met with protests from downstream communities. Photograph: Jean Nicole Cortes.PCIJ

The Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA) opposed Benguet Corp.’s plans to continue its mining operations in Itogon, however, and stood firm that it was time to return the land to the municipality. 

Imbes na i-rehab, mas inisip pa nito kung paano mas pagkakitaan pa ang lupain lalo na ang bahaging nasa ilalim ng kanilang mining patent (Instead of starting rehabilitation, it found a way to continue to profit from the land especially in areas under its mining patent),” the CPA’s Mero said.

Halimbawa, ang mga proposal nilang rehabilitation is to transform the Antamok Open Pit mine para sa bulk water reserve ng Baguio. Noong hindi umubra ay gawin daw na sanitary landfill. Mayroon din silang pagtatangka na mag-venture sa real estate at pag-convert ng bahagi ng kanilang mining patent into an economic zone,” Mero added

(For example, there was a proposal to rehabilitate the Antamok Open-Pit mine by transforming it into a bulk water reserve for Baguio. When it didn’t work, they said they could turn it into a sanitary landfill instead. They also attempted to venture into real estate by converting parts of their mining patent into an economic zone.)

Mero was worried that disasters could strike again if the tunnels were not rehabilitated. “Many of the abandoned tunnels were not properly backfilled. These pose hazards to the community especially during continuous rains, strong typhoons and earthquakes. There are also reports that in their contract mining areas, they are now mining the pillars, further weakening the ground,” he said.

The people are better off finding alternative livelihoods, said Mero.

“More than 100 years of mining yet our town and its people remain poor. The [landslide during typhoon ‘Ondoy’ in 2009] and subsequent closure of SSM (small-scale mining) operations and the pandemic have totally exposed how hard life is in Itogon. Even if we host the oldest mining company, we are also concerned about the unrehabilitated tunnels and open pit mines,’ Mero said.

Benguet Corp. had been under the control of the Romualdez family until the administration of Duterte, when Benjamin Philip and Daniel Andrew Romualdez, sons of alleged Marcos crony Benjamin “Kokoy” Romualdez, left the company after decades of fighting government sequestration.

The economist Bernardo Villegas, an independent director, was installed as chairman in late 2019. The company reported nearly P116 million in net income that year on revenues of P802 million. 

Lepanto: First copper concentrator

Lepanto, on the other hand, was established in 1936 and was the first to operate a copper concentrator in the Philippines. 

The company alone employs over 2,000 employees and boasts of its ISO certificate, first issued on May 12, 2016, stating that the company had complied with environmental management standards. 

The audit report said Lepanto committed the following violations:

  • dumping mine tailings directly to the river;
  • violating health and safety regulations;
  • maintaining and storing unregistered TSD; and
  • operating a controlled dumpsite.

Lepanto also contested the 2017 suspension order that cost the company over P1.8 billion, the company’s resident manager Thomas Consolacion told reporters then. 

It was granted a stay order on Oct. 12, 2017 after it filed an appeal with Malacañang. The company was ordered to pay P27,275 in fines to the MGB and P100,000 to the Environmental Management Bureau. Lepanto also agreed to monthly inspections.

Read Lepanto’s memo on the lifting of the suspension order here.

PCIJ reached out to Lepanto corporate communications head Butch Mendizabal for an interview and for copies of the suspension order and appeal it had filed with Malacañang. The company declined both requests.

Notwithstanding Lepanto’s ISO certification and support from residents directly employed by the company, protests from host and downstream communities hound the industry giant. 

The call to cancel Lepanto’s mining permit started in 2002 when local scientists, health professionals, and academicians formed Save the Abra River Movement (STARM) with a series of environmental investigative missions and studies from 2002 to 2005, which yielded proof of the river’s decline due to mining.

Communities dotting the Abra River banks have long attributed the rivers’ siltation and pollution to Lepanto’s operations, endangering the people’s primary source of irrigation, fishery and other livelihood.

The Tailings Storage and Facility 5A of Lepanto Consolidated Mining Company. Photograph: Lauren Alimondo.PCIJ

“Abra River is an integral component of the broad people’s call for Lepanto’s closure,” said Mero. 

From Benguet, the river flows to the municipalities of Cervantes, Quirino and San Emilio in Ilocos Sur, and traverses the towns of Luba, Manabo, Bucay and Bangued in Abra. Its waters meet the West Philippine Sea in Santa, Bantay and Caoayan, also in Ilocos Sur.

“When the company started, there were still no laws prohibiting the dumping of waste directly into the bodies of water. For decades, Lepanto disposed of its waste in the streams, which eventually found their way to the main river system,” said Mero.

Companies were allowed to use natural water bodies for their mine wastes provided that these were treated. The company used to course mine waste through a tributary creek connecting to the storage facility. 

Lepanto built its first dam to contain silt and wastewater in the 1960s, but the company suffered three dam failures until 1993, releasing volumes of tailings to the river and destroying rice fields along its banks.

In the municipality of Santa in Ilocos Sur, Lepanto’s tailings dam poses a threat to all communities along the Abra River. “We are the catch basin. All waste from upstream will eventually reach our communities here, where the river exits,” said Vice Mayor Jeremy Bueno.

In March 2017, during the hearing of the House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources in Baguio City, Bueno told lawmakers that “Lepanto’s Tailings Dam 5A on the Abra River’s headwaters is a clear and present danger to life in the entire river basin.”

Bueno said his position on the matter remained the same. “There has been no significant change, even when the company was ordered to cease its operation, the looming threat from the tailings dam remained,” he said.

In 2004, Lepanto faced fines for polluting the Abra River. It was penalized by the Pollution Adjudication Board after failing the effluent standards required on rivers. The government slapped the company with minimal fees in the same year.

The Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) launched another probe in 2008. A test conducted in April that year found that lead content in Dam 5A exceeded the normal lead levels. The research findings and succeeding pollution probes by the EMB further strengthened the call for Lepanto’s closure.

But MGB’s Apil said Lepanto made adjustments to its operations before Lopez’s audit report came out, piping its tailings from its mills to a tailings dam in compliance with her orders for all mines to stop channeling their waste through bodies of water.

Lepanto recorded heavy losses in 2019. Its net loss widened to P1.03 billion from P775 million as revenues dipped 3% to P2.12 billion amid weak gold trade in 2019. The company was controlled by the family of businessman Felipe Yap.

Sinking towns

The environmental issues in Benguet’s mining towns are beyond the findings of Lopez’s audit report.

In October 2015, a sinkhole measuring about 150 meters swallowed six houses during the onslaught of Typhoon “Lando” at Sitio Kamangaan in Barangay Virac in Itogon.

Later, about 500 more houses were identified to be at risk of being swallowed by the sinkhole.

A report by the National Institute of Geological Sciences of the University of the Philippines (UP) said the subsidence was caused by a pipe out that started at the old drain tunnel of Benguet Corp. Heavy rains triggered the collapse of soil.

At that time, Mayor Palangdan insisted Benguet Corp. must admit responsibility for the Virac sinkhole and stay true to a promise to rehabilitate the mine. The sinkhole created a five-hectare danger zone.

But Benguet Corp. did not take responsibility for the sinkhole. Instead, it offered remedial measures and a relocation site at their old timber yard, former dumping grounds of the mining firm. However, resettlement is being hampered by disputes between land claimants and the mining company.

Those rendered homeless have since been renting homes while BC employees were given temporary resettlement.

Mining next door. These households are located near Benguet Corporation’s mine in Itogon, Benguet. Photograph: Jean Nicole Cortes/PCIJ

In 2018, when Typhoon “Ompong” struck, Palangdan was ready to renounce mining and go back to farming after small-scale miners were buried alive in a landslide widely attributed to the town’s mining operations.

He lamented how the town was destroyed, forcing people to look for other means of livelihood. 

Benguet Corp. again denied responsibility for the landslide and said illegal mining and gold processing activities were carried out without its permission. 

MGB also attested that the landslide was not caused by mining alone, as there were aggravating circumstances.

Environment Secretary Cimatu immediately ordered a halt to small-scale mining in the Cordillera and deployed soldiers and police to enforce the ban, sealing all tunnels. 

The death of the miners revived calls for the opening of a common mining site under the “Minahang Bayan” scheme for small-scale miners. 

The Minahang Bayan centralizes the processing of mineral output within a zone, helping curb illegal, unregulated and indiscriminate mining. It also allows the government to better monitor gold production by small-scale miners.

In 2019, a Minahang Bayan permit was awarded to the Loakan Itogon Pocket Miners Association (LIPMA) within the patented mineral claims of Benguet Corp., which endorsed the application. 

In Mankayan, sinking was first observed in 1972 or almost four decades after Lepanto started mining operations.

The subsidence has crept into the villages of Colalo and Poblacion, pushing former Mankayan mayor Materno Luspian to call for an independent probe to find the cause and solution to the perennial danger.

In 1975, a team from the then Bureau of Mines, Commission on Volcanology and Bureau of Public Works investigated ground movement in Barangay Poblacion.

The team found cracks along concrete pavements, house floors and walls, and displaced posts. Buildings and structures were found to be below standard and erected over weak foundations.

The probe found no conclusive evidence that underground work at the mines caused ground movement. Sinking was attributed to rainfall, topography, highly fractured and altered overlying rocks as well as disturbance of the slope by man and nature.

‘Bold moves need support’

Lopez’s Feb. 2, 2017 order was contentious even inside the DENR. Protocol was not followed, too.

Apil said the DENR didn’t normally slap mining companies with outright suspension orders. Usually, the DENR  informs the company first about its violations and gives it time to comply. 

The audit report was also submitted directly to the DENR central office in Quezon City, bypassing the regional offices. “Unfortunately, we were not provided [with the report] here in the region. It was only there, at the DENR central office that they vetted the results,” Apil said.

Mero said it resulted in confusion on the ground. It was not clear what agency was to enforce the directive and ensure the shutdown of mines. The MGB regional office had minimal participation in the audit, he said. 

On Aug. 9, 2019, MGB’s Cordillera office recommended the permanent lifting of the suspension order against Lepanto after it said the company fully complied with all the requirements set by the MICC.

On Jan. 9, 2020, Apil also endorsed granting Benguet Corp.’s appeal against the closure order but imposed conditions that the company would implement its corporate social responsibility programs.

Four years after Lopez’s shutdown orders, the status of Malacañang’s review is still unknown. CMP’s Dimaculangan said the MICC scheduled a second round of audits in early 2020 although he said he’s unaware if this was completed.

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque told PCIJ he’d defer to Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, whose office refused to divulge information on the specific cases.

The CMP said it was also waiting for Malacañang to finally resolve Lopez’s shutdown orders and “move mining forward,” citing the industry’s potential to contribute to economic recovery amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

“To achieve this, we believe that the government should resolve the suspension orders issued by former Secretary Lopez, which is still pending with the Office of the President, after compliance with any corrective measures recommended by the MICC,” said Dimaculangan. 

President Duterte, who has kept the previous administration’s ban on open-pit mining, has repeatedly warned he would shut down mining operations in the country if miners didn’t follow tighter environmental rules.

But it was clear that Duterte didn’t have as much zeal for Lopez’s crusade, said La Viña, as when he ordered the shutdown and rehabilitation of the tourist island of Boracay in 2018.

“The lesson there was: You have to do bold things with the support of the president,” said La Viña. –– With research and reporting by Sherwin de Vera and Lauren Alimondo, PCIJ, January 2021

This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.— PCIJ

NUJP: Where is justice in Doc Gerry’s killing?

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) bewailed the lack of justice for the killing of a broadcaster in Palawan exactly a decade ago.

In a statement, the media group urged the Court of Appeals to conduct proceedings to prosecute the accused in the killing of journalist, environmentalist and good governance advocate Gerardo “Doc Gerry” Ortega on January 24, 2011.

Ortega was shot dead by a gunman at a thrift store he visited after hosting his program “Ramatak” on the Puerto Princesa City radio station dwAR-FM.

He was the first journalist killed under the Benigno Aquino presidency.

The gunman was almost immediately caught, followed quickly by other members of the hit team, all of whom named those who allegedly ordered the hit – former Palawan governor Joel Reyes and his brother Mario, then the Coron mayor, as well as other accomplices.

Most of the accused have since been convicted, except the Reyes brothers who fled the country in March 2012.

They were arrested in Thailand in September 2015 and deported back to the Philippines.

Joel Reyes was ordered freed by the Court of Appeals on January 2018 but he was rearrested and jailed in Camp Bagong Diwa after his conviction for graft by the Sandiganbayan.

In November 2019 the appellate court reversed its January 2018 decision and ordered the resumption of the Ortega murder trial.

The NUJP noted that trials for the murder of journalists are unusually long in the Philippines, itself a form of injustice to the victims and their families.

“[I]t took a decade for a verdict to be handed down on those accused of carrying out the November 23, 2009 Ampatuan massacre, which claimed the lives of 58 persons, 32 of them journalists. And even then, the legal process is far from over with appeals filed and scores of other suspects still at large,” the group said.

The NUJP said the families endure the protracted process and the dangers of harassments and threats from the masterminds.

“It is a testament to their courage that neither the families of the massacre victims nor of Doc Gerry have wavered in their search for justice, despite the many dangers and obstacles placed in their way,” the NUJP said.

“[B]y any standards, a decade without justice is clearly justice too long denied for Doc Gerry, his wife Patty, and their children. We urge the trial court to take to heart the CA’s order to conduct proceedings in criminal case No. 26839 with purposeful dispatch,” the group added.

In a Facebook post, Ortega’s son Joaquin Philippe said their family has already learned to live without their father but the late broadcaster and his battle against corruption and greed are still remembered.

“That battle is far from over. I don’t believe justice is a myth, but I believe our society’s current systems need to change,” the young Ortega wrote. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Gov’t priorities enrich a few and destroy the environment–IBON

Instead of just going after local politicians, the Duterte administration should take responsibility for pushing anti-environment policies that contributed to the recent massive flooding and destruction of communities during typhoon Ulysses, research group IBON said.

The National Irrigation Administration and Malacañang recently called out local officials involved in logging and mining. But this will be hypocritical, said the group, if the government does not reverse policies that degrade the environment while benefiting just a few.

The forest cover has fallen to only 7 million hectares as of 2015 according to the Forest Management Bureau. This is equivalent to only 23.3% of the country’s total land area, considered an environmentally critical level. The figure has even continued to diminish from 11 million in the 1970s when forest destruction peaked due to government-sponsored unbridled logging. Data from the Bureau of Soil and Water Management show that 70.5% of the country’s land area is categorized as severely degraded and 16.6% as moderately degraded.

IBON pointed to priorities such as Build Build Build and the National Land Use Plan that continue to encroach into the public domain and degrade land.

The group said that the Duterte government continues to promote large-scale mining, corporate and chemical plantations and land use conversion as well as reclamation for real estate and infrastructure. The government prioritizes the building of large dams, megaports, ecotourism complexes and export enclaves.

Government policies and programs enrich a few at the expense of the nation, the people and environment, IBON said. The group pointed to the businesses of Sy, Villar, Gokongwei, Razon, Ayala, Tan, Caktiong, Ang, and Ty as the biggest gainers from government priorities.

The corporations of these richest Filipinos, according to the latest Forbes’ list, dominate the real estate, construction, ports development, power, energy, water, oil, mining, and agriculture sectors. IBON said that the government should own up to upholding environmentally destructive policies that drive corporate profits instead of pointing fingers at others.

The Philippine government’s bias for profit-seeking interests even at the expense of the environment are the root cause of the logging, quarrying and land conversion in Rizal and Cagayan provinces that have caused such devastating floods. Deforestation, flooding and the sufferings of communities will continue unless these are stopped and corrective measures are taken, said the group. #

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Kodao publishes IBON articles as part of a content-sharing agreement.