REPULSED

Villagers rebuff mine firm over failed promises

By Melvin Gascon

KASIBU, Nueva Vizcaya—Officials and residents of a mining community here on Wednesday confronted a mining company over unfulfilled promises, as it now plans to increase production rate of its gold-copper mining operation in this upland town, some 270 km north of Manila.

In a public meeting, community leaders and villagers took turns in assailing OceanaGold Philippines, Inc. for seeking to amend its existing environmental compliance certificate (ECC) without showing that it has complied with it commitments when it was first granted a mining license in 1994.

“You (Oceanagold) must first inform the people what the original ECC contained and show proof that you have faithfully complied with it, because without that, you should not even be looking to amend it,” village councilor Celia Bahag told OceanaGold representatives.

Villagers have become highly skeptical of the company, council member the official said, because of its failure to honor past commitments, such as the improvement of village roads, and construction of a hospital and a community park.

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The Australian firm held Wednesday’s public meeting to gather community sentiment before it solicits government approval to increase production at its Didipio gold-copper mine here from a processing rate of 3.5 million to 4.3 million tons of ore yearly.

The company is eyeing to increase its “throughput rate”  in attempt to make up for lost time, with only three years left on its mining license, a 25-year financial technical assistance agreement (FTAA), which it was issued in 1994.

In 2013, it started commercial production at its Didipio operation, with gold and copper deposits that, according to estimates, provides a projected mine life of 16 years.

Over the years, delays have taken its toll on the OceanaGold project, amid a number of political, legal, social and environmental issues.

Wednesday’s meeting here coincided with another group’s meeting with environment secretary Regina Paz Lopez in Makati City, where, according to media reports, she directed the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) to revoke the exploration permit it has granted to OceanaGold earlier this year for its proposed expansion.

Since last month, residents have maintained a road barricade leading to the sub-village of Camgat to block an OceanaGold team from conducting drilling activities there.

At the Didipio meeting, about 100 attendees, mostly Ifugao residents, wore paper hats, written with anti-mining slogans opposing the amendment to the company’s existing ECC.

Kasibu vice mayor Romeo Tayaban also blasted OceanaGold for promising that the impending increase in its production rate would redound to an increase in tax payments to the government.

“Showing to us an increase in billions (of tax payments) may look good and tempting, but these do not mean anything to us now because in the past years that you have been operating, you refused to recognize that you are doing business in Nueva Vizcaya,” he said.

Tayaban was referring to a 2013 case filed by OceanaGold which asked the court to decide which between the provinces of Nueva Vizcaya and Quirino should the company pay its taxes, owing to an unresolved boundary dispute that covers the location of the Didipio mine.

The vice mayor questioned why the Didipio mine was allowed to operate despite failing to meet the needed endorsements from the host barangay, town and province, as set forth in its original ECC.

Erenio Bobbola, chair of a people’s organization here, said OceanaGold has lost the trust of the community for repeatedly failing to honor its commitment.

“It is only good at making promises; once it has gotten what it wants, it starts getting forgetful,” he said. He and a group of Didipio landowners have been asking additional compensation for the lands occupied by OceanaGold and its predecessor, Climax Arimco Mining Corp. since 1999.

Village councilor Marissa Puguon also took OceanaGold to task for the environmental issues which it has supposedly failed to address.

She cited the shortage of potable water experienced by members of the community, the disturbance caused by earthquakes during blasting activities, the “contaminated” water flowing into the rivers from the mine, as well as the “unbearable” stench coming from its sewage treatment plant.

“These issues must first be resolved before we start discussing any proposed amendment (to the ECC),” she said.

In response, OceanaGold environment officer Jason Magdaong acknowledged that while the company has yet to fulfil a number of its commitments, it did not have any intention of reneging from these.

“We continue working on these commitments; only that we cannot accomplish all of them at once. But we will comply,” he said.

Magdaong said the company is looking into tapping an independent body to “validate” the environmental issues raised, such as the contamination of rivers, the depletion of water sources and the sewage disposal.

He, however, declined to comment on other issues raised by attendees, saying he does not have the authority to answer on the company’s behalf.

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