Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Semirara mercury safe, says coal firm

By Nestor P. Burgos Jr.
Inquirer Visayas
First Posted 01:06:00 06/17/2009

Filed Under: Environmental Issues, Pollution, Mining and quarrying

ILOILO CITY -- Semirara Mining Co. (SMC) has disputed findings of University of the Philippines scientists showing toxic levels of mercury in areas on Semirara Island in Antique.
Juniper Barroquillo, SMC administrative manager, said the company’s own studies had shown that mercury levels were within tolerable and safe levels.
Deadly element
“Their findings are wrong. We have already conducted monitoring on the mercury levels,” Barroquillo told the Philippine Daily Inquirer in a telephone interview on Monday.
Scientists and researchers from UP Visayas (UPV) said last week that soil samples taken from areas near the mining operations showed that the mercury content reached “moderate toxicity” level, which was safe to animals and humans.
Mercury poisoning could cause damage to the nervous system and permanently damage the brain, kidneys and fetuses, according to the scientists.
The samples, which were analyzed at the Research and Analytical Services Laboratory of the Natural Sciences Research Institute and the National Institute of Geological Sciences in UP Diliman, also showed high concentrations of coal in the soil especially at the mouth of the Suja Creek in Barangay Semirara, one of the three villages of the 5,500-hectare island.
Environmental groups and some islanders have blamed decades of coal mining operations for the massive siltation that has destroyed their coastal and marine resources, including mangroves.
Denied allegations
But SMC, which took over the mining operations from the government-owned Semirara Coal Corp. (SCC) in 1999, has repeatedly denied the allegations and pointed at old stockpiles of SCC as the cause of siltation.
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) in Western Visayas issued conflicting reports on allegations of pollution on the island.
A report of its Community Environment Officer (Cenro) has belied allegations of siltation and death of mangroves.
But on February 15, the Environment and Management Bureau (EMB) of the DENR regional office recommended to the Pollution and Adjudication Board the issuance of a cease-and-desist order for SMC to close its coal washing plant.
‘Prima facie evidence’
The memo, issued by then regional director Bienvenido Lipayon, cited “prima facie evidence” that SMC was disposing of coal wastes into the Suja Creek and the sea.
The EMB has not reacted to the findings of the UP scientists. Oscar Cabanayan, EMB regional director, did not respond to repeated calls and text messages from the Inquirer.
Barroquillo said SMC had taken steps to prevent further siltation from old coal stockpiles.
He said the company had also transferred its coal washing plant to the Panian mining pit at the cost of P200 million. It would be operational before the end of the month.