115 illegal gold-mining tunnels invade Surigao City’s only source of potable water

SURIGAO CITY (MindaNews/27 September)—Fears of possible contamination of the Parang-parang watershed in Barangay Mat-i here have been raised following the recent discovery by the Surigao Metropolitan Water District (SMWD) of 115 illegal gold-mining tunnels within the 967-hectare reserve.

Miners usually use toxic chemicals such as mercury, borax and carbon in extracting gold and other minerals.

Parang-parang watershed is now dried up, causing water crisis in the city. File photo taken in June 2010 courtesy of Jun Clerigo

In an interview, SMWD general manager Benjamin R. Ensomo Jr. said he was alarmed over the high number of tunnels in the city’s only source of potable water which more than doubled since last year.

He recalled there were only 55 tunnels operated with impunity by small-scale miners in search of high-grade gold which is said to be abundant underneath the surface soil of what is considered the country’s smallest water source.

Mining operations within the watershed are deemed illegal since it is a protected area as per Presidential Proclamation No. 635 issued on August 29, 1990 by President Corazon C. Aquino.

Mining activities in Surigao watershed. File photos taken in June courtesy of SMWD.

Reports said there were only eight tunnels in the area in 2007. The number increased to 11 in 2008 and to 55 in 2009.

Ensomo further revealed it’s not just small-scale mining that is destroying the city’s water source but also logging.

He said the watershed area was a logging area way back in the 1960’s and even until now illegal loggers are still operating there.

Nowadays, small-scale miners would cut trees for timber needed in building the tunnels, while others use them for firewood and housing needs.

Nature’s forces also took its toll on the Parang-parang watershed. In 1984, thousands of trees were uprooted in the area after super typhoon Nitang hit Surigao City.

Two years after its proclamation as a protected area, some 400 hectares of trees burned in a forest fire that lasted a month.

Mining activities in Surigao watershed. File photos taken in June courtesy of SMWD.

Ensomo added that most workers and financers of the illegal mining activities came from the Diwalwal area in Davao del Norte and other neighboring towns and provinces.

Based on their findings, ball mills in the vicinity of the watershed area increased from two units last year to four this year.

A ball mill is a device used to ground or process stones, pebbles and soil which contain high-value ores such as gold and bronze.

Janet Escañan, the officer in charge of the Provincial Environment Management Office, has remained mum on the existence and operations of the gold-mining tunnels in Surigao City ’s watershed area.

The Mines and Geosciences Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resource in Region 13 could not be reached for comment.

During a recent press conference, Surigao City Mayor Ernesto T. Matugas said the city government would rely on the provincial government’s stand in favor of “responsible mining”.

But Matugas did not say what he will do about the illegal mining and logging activities happening in Parang-parang.

On August 11, 2010, Surigao del Norte Governor Sol Matugas issued Executive Order No. 007 canceling all permits for small-scale mining operations and quarrying operations  issued by the former administration.

Sources said some small-scale mining and quarrying operators who were affected by the said order had allegedly acquired their permits from some local government units.

Task Force 007, headed by Provincial Administrator Romeo Cal, recently told MindaNews of the provincial government’s plan to take legal actions against the illegal miners in Parang-parang.

He said they would also come up with solutions to address the problems confronting the city’s main water source.

Concerned city residents meanwhile have expressed apprehensions presence of several tunnels in the watershed area might have already weakened its rock and soil foundation endangering hundreds, if not thousands, of illegal mine workers.

A single tunnel employs at least one hundred workers. (Roel Catoto/MindaNews)