Thursday, April 27, 2017

Mine review proceeds amid Cabinet row

Posted on April 20, 2017

THE NEW review of mining projects nationwide can now proceed unhindered as Environment Secretary Regina Paz L. Lopez yesterday signaled qualified support, even as she bared a spat over the issue with a fellow Cabinet member.

Ms. Lopez told reporters yesterday that Executive Secretary Salvador C. Medialdea has in effect allowed miners she ordered closed last February to continue operating by allegedly holding on to their appeals to MalacaƱang, in effect preventing President Rodrigo R. Duterte from rendering a final decision on their fate.

As a result of a Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) audit that began in July last year, Ms. Lopez in mid-February ordered closed 22 of the country’s 41 operating metal mines and five others suspended for various violations of environment laws, and moved later that same month to suspend the permits of 75 others still in pre-production stage.

At industry request, the Mining Industry Coordinating Council (MICC) -- led by both DENR and the Department of Finance (DoF) -- proceeded last month to conduct a separate review.

Ms. Lopez asked Mr. Duterte early in March to stop that separate review, arguing that it usurped DENR’s authority.

Some of the affected miners have appealed their fate to MalacaƱang.

“You issue a closure order, and then... they all appeal. And it goes to the Office of the President but the President is not getting it. It’s stuck in one person’s office,” Ms. Lopez said at DENR’s head office in Quezon City.

“I’m not happy with that at all. Like, let it go to the President and let him decide,” she added.

“I really don’t want to fight... but when I’m giving an order to help the farmers and you’re going against me, away ‘to talaga (this is war).”

Administrative Order No. 22, issued on Oct. 11, 2011 and which sets rules for appeals to the Office of the President, provides in part that “[t]he execution of the decision/resolution/order appealed from is stayed upon the filing of the notice of appeal...”

Ms. Lopez alleged further that Mr. Medialdea blocked a Jan. 30 DENR order requiring each suspended miner to put up a trust fund amounting to P2 million per hectare of “disturbed land” before getting an ore transport permit.

“He (Mr. Medialdea) stopped me. So now they’re (miners) removing the stockpiles and I cannot stop them,” Ms. Lopez said.

“It’s my prerogative as (Environment) secretary to issue that directive,” she stressed, adding that “[w]hat happened is Bingbong Medialdea has given a directive to all the mining companies counteracting my order.”

“Parang (it seems) he’s going against the very spirit of the Duterte administration which is to help the poor,” she said.

“So I’m not really happy about this at all.”

Sought for comment, Mr. Medialdea, told reporters in a mobile phone message yesterday that appeals to the Office of the President (OP) go to the executive secretary’s and not directly to the president.

Commenting particularly on the requirement for a trust fund, he explained: “The stay order issued by the OP is not a final order but a mere provisional measure to prevent substantial damage that may result unless extracted ores are shipped out...”

“The stay order does not contradict the president’s policy against destructive mining operations.”

In a phone interview yesterday, University of Santo Tomas political science professor Edmund S. Tayao said that such Cabinet infighting is nothing new.

“What makes this different is it is public, Mr. Tayao said.

“That is why it is considered a concern,” he added, saying all eyes now are on how Mr. Duterte will defuse the situation.

For Ramon C. Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, the situation may “not yet” be considered a “crisis” but merely a “normal turf war.”

“The terms used are ‘turf-raiding’ and ‘turf- defending’,” Mr. Casiple explained in a separate text message.

“That’s when a secretary extends his authority to another’s jurisdiction and the latter defends it. Ultimately, it’s the president’s sole turf,” he added.

“It’s crisis when the Cabinet cannot get a consensus and the President cannot unify it behind him.”

Ms. Lopez yesterday also signaled she was prepared to go along with the MICC review, which she had initially opposed in a March 6 letter to Mr. Duterte, subject to conditions.

“I decided to adjust for issues of transparency because I am not hiding anything... I’m confident we did the audit well,” she said of DENR’s own audit which miners had criticized for lack of scientific basis.

But she reiterated that the MICC was a recommendatory body and that the final say still belonged to DENR and, in the case of appeals, the Office of the President.

“[I] will only get involved if there’s a commitment to social justice. I’m not gonna get involved if -- and I’m not even interested if -- from each and every member (of the MICC review teams) there’s no commitment that whatever they say, whatever they do, the result of that would be the betterment of our people,” Ms. Lopez said.

“But if the agenda is something else, then huwag na lang no. If the agenda is to save business interests then huwag na lang.”

Ms. Lopez also voiced doubts on how the new review can be “objective” with the involvement of a DoF representative to the MICC and recommended geologists for the technical working groups who used to be linked to mining.

“I wanna start the process now because you never know what will happen after eh,” Ms. Lopez said.

“I’m a little worried because the DoF representative who’s chairing the whole process in [Finance Sec. Carlos G. Dominguez III’s] absence is a lawyer involved in a mining company.”

Asked if she was referring to Finance Undersecretary for Legal affairs Bayani H. Agabin, who has been filling in for Mr. Dominguez in recent MICC meetings, Ms. Lopez replied: “Yeah, he was involved with Rapu-rapu (island gold, copper, silver and zinc project in Albay), di ba?”

“So you begin to wonder where is his heart? Is it with the mining company or is it for social justice?”

Asked if DENR will ask Mr. Agabin to inhibit himself from the review, Environment Undersecretary Maria Paz G. Luna replied in the affirmative.

Sought for comment, Mr. Agabin said in a text message yesterday that DENR was “free” to appeal against his participation in the review “like any other parties, personalities who are opposing her (Ms. Lopez’s) confirmation with the CA (Commission on Appointments).”

The DoF official also pointed out the his engagement with Philippine Associated Smelting & Refining Corp. ended more than 15 years ago while his link with Rapu Rapu Minerals Inc. as senior vice- president for Legal Affairs also ended 10 years ago.

In a statement yesterday, Mr. Agabin also said that the MICC did not usurp DENR’s authority.

Saying the council “is not a creation of any department”, Mr. Agabin said it “is mandated under Section 10 of Executive Order No. 79, which was issued by the previous administration, to conduct an assessment and review of all mining-related laws, rules and regulations, issuances and agreements.”

The Environment chief also raised concern on experts recommended to form part of the technical working groups for the mine review, citing their previous or existing ties to mining.

“I’m heavily involved in the selection process,” Ms. Lopez said.

“The geologists that were recommended -- many of them, if not all of them -- were mining consultants. You have people there and they are mining consultants: are you gonna give a recommendation to save the mining industry or a recommendation for the betterment of our people?” she added.

“If the people involved have business links to business entities, then huwag na lang no, because that means your purpose there is to save the business entity you used to work for or are currently working for, then huwag na lang,” she insisted, saying “the lens in which they are looking at it is not social justice.”

The MICC last March 28 said those forming part of review teams, among others, should not be employed or involved with operating mines nor be a member of any organization with advocacy for or against mining.

The five teams will involve specialists in the law, social development, the economy, mining and the environment who must have at least 10 years of experience in these fields. -- with inputs from Ian Nicolas P. Cigaral and Elijah Joseph C. Tubayan

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