Tubay mayor says floods aggravated by overflow of mining firm’s settling pond

Inset Map Courtesy of Wikipedia.BUTUAN CITY (MindaNews/09 February) — The mayor of Tubay in Agusan del Norte blamed last week’s “unprecedented” floods on the overflow of the main settling pond of the San Roque Metals, Inc. (SRMI), a nickel-mining company whose operations the municipality had petitioned President Aquino to stop due to alleged “destructive and irresponsible mining practices.”

The mining firm said it is not to blame for the floods but admitted it “contributed certain volume of water.”

Early morning of February 3, Tubay Mayor Sadeka Garcia-Tomaneng sent out a text message that “continuous downpour of rain for several days caused flooding, and the breakdown of the tailings pond of an open cut nickel mining by SRMI has greatly aggravated the situation that caused an extraordinary overflooding of the lowlands which is unprecedented in the history of the municipality.”

Three of its 13 barangays were submerged in waist-deep waters — all but one purok in Barangay Cabayawa and a few puroks in barangays Dona Rosario and Uno — while two residents died from drowning: Reyam Bahan, 7, of Dona Rosario, and Ricarte Ganzan, 70, of Barangay Binuangan.

In an interview here evening of February 3, Garcia said this is the first time the waters rose so high and the main road from the highway towards the poblacion became inaccessible except for trucks. In areas below the road level, the floodwaters reached at least five feet, she said.

SMRI, which operates a nickel-cobalt mining project in La Fraternidad, Tubay, provided two trucks “to ferry incoming and outgoing community people at the flooded area in Barangay Dona Rosario.”

Ryan Anthony Culima, SRMI vice president for Public and Media Relations, told MindaNews Friday that based on the exit conference after the site visit of the Multipartite Monitoring Team (MMT) on February 3, “wala kamatuoran sa akusasyon nga gikan sa tailing pond ang dakong tubig” (there is no truth to accusations that the huge volume of water came from the tailing pond).

A representative of the Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) in the MMT report Culima sent MindaNews on Saturday afternoon said the correct term is “settling or silt ponds.”

Settling ponds are supposed to prevent silt from escaping into the natural waterways.

The report said Jerry Jamolod, EMB representative who spearheaded the investigation and facilitated the exit conference after the mine tour, “reiterates that the company is not the cause of flooding at the low-lying areas of Tubay although the company admitted that they have contributed certain volume of water.”

What the “certain volume” is, Culima said on Friday, “what the rain has poured that’s the same amount of water contributed. Naturally, because it’s a higher level of land, it will go down to the river.”

Of 14 members who attended the “Emergency MMT Monitoring” on February 3, six were from SRMI and three from EMB, one representative from the provincial government, two from the municipal government, the barangay captain and the parish priest.

“Could have been prevented”

Tubay Mayor Sadeka Garcia-Tomaneng. Mindanews Photo by Ruby Thursday More“What angers me is we could have prevented this,” Garcia said, referring to the “breakdown” of the settling pond which her municipal engineer, Christopher Dagani, later clarified to mean the settling pond “overflowed.”

Dagani, who joined the February 3 visit to the mine site, told MindaNews SMRI has seven settling ponds and silt traps – a main settling pond the firm calls “mega pond” which is approximately “two to three hectares and 12 to 14 meters deep,” three silt traps of about half a hectare each and another three of approximately 3,000 square meters each.

He said the mega pond did not break down but overflowed, spilling an estimated 20 cubic meters (20,000 liters) per second.

Garcia said she received text messages from sources in the mine site that the settling ponds were in danger of overflowing “last week pa” because of the continuous heavy downpour and had asked the Municipal Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council to “go there and investigate” but the team, she said, was not allowed entry.

She said the road is supposedly public but used privately by the firm.

SRMI has been the subject of several petitions from the municipal government and residents of its 13 barangays, endorsed by the provincial board of Agusan del Norte, requesting President Aquino, to “order the closure and cessation of the mining operations” of SRMI and the cancellation of its Mineral Production and Sharing Agreement (MPSA)” for, among others, alleged “destructive and irresponsible mining practices, sedimentation of the fishing grounds and sanctuaries leading to lesser fish catch, heavy siltation in the seabed near the loading area caused by the unmitigated falling/dumping of nickel ores from the barges/causeway of the company into the sea during loading operations” and fewer water sources.

Garcia said SRMI has been mining in Tubay since 2006, initially as a small-scale venture.

The firm has an MPSA over 572 hectares for nickel, cobalt, iron and other associated mineral deposits, approved on March 10, 2008.

In a Manila Bulletin article on September 6, 2007, SRMI president Miguel Alberto Gutierrez, reported total remittances of “close to P240 million in taxes and dues both to the national and local governments during the first six months of the current year alone.”

Garcia said the firm owes the municipality P72 million in taxes and P136 million for extraction fee, a claim SRMI has repeatedly denied. She said the local government has yet to get “maski piso” (even a peso) from the SRMI which, she said, earns “in billions of pesos.”

Tubay, a fourth class municipality, has an estimated population of 22,000.

The mayor narrated that when she received more text messages that the settling pond was about to “give way,” she sent her chief of police to investigate and to “get visuals but he wasn’t allowed in.”

“Then it happened.”

Not the cause of flooding but…

Culima e-mailed to MindaNews Saturday afternoon a copy of the report of the “MMT Members Field Verification Findings and Observations.”

The report stated the MMT inspected the main settling pond or “mega pond” and the “series of silt traps for us to really see the real situation.”

The report said Jerry Jamolod, EMB representative who spearheaded the investigation and facilitated the exit conference after the mine tour, “reiterates that the company is not the cause of flooding at the low-lying areas of Tubay although the company admitted that they have contributed certain volume of water.”

On Friday, MindaNews asked Culima for the estimated volume “contributed” to the flooding. His reply: “What the rain has poured that’s the same amount of water contributed, naturally, because it’s a higher level of land, it will go down to the river. We don’t use water in our mining process. It’s just the natural flow from the rain.”

Continuous rains brought about by a low pressure area over Eastern Visayas and Mindanao had triggered the overflow of Lake Mainit, turning at least five portions of the Agusan del Norte to Surigao del Norte highway into a virtual sea and inundating lakeshore towns, and even low-lying areas that had not experienced such a high rise in water like Barangay Dona Paz in Santiago town, and Tubay.

Garcia said continuous rains caused the flooding but noted that the “breakdown” of SRMI’s settling pond had “greatly aggravated the situation.”

Install monitoring gauge

On Monday morning, MindaNews asked Culima if its team could go to the minesite to see the settling pond and silt traps. He replied he’d seek clearance from their office in Manila.

From its base in Davao City, MindaNews asked Culima several times by phone – between Friday and Wednesday — for specifics as to the size of the settling pond and its holding capacity but he has yet to send the details. MindaNews also asked if it was alright to call but on Monday afternoon, Dagani, who is also a Butuan City councilor, said he was in session. On Tuesday afternoon, he said he was in a meeting with the mayor. On Wednesday morning, he replied, “I’m going to the site. I will check on that later.” MindaNews followed up with a text message at 4 p.m. but as of 6 p.m. Culima had yet to answer.

Municipal engineer Dagani, who provided MindaNews the estimated area and depth of the “mega pond” clarified that it did not break down but overflowed, spilling an estimated 20 cubic meters (20,000 liters) per second. He said even if only one per cent of that discharge is silt, “maka-contribute talaga sa flooding,” he said.

In its Resolution 117-2010 passed on October 10, 2010 endorsing Tubay’s resolution requesting President Aquino to stop SRMI’s operations there, the provincial board of Agusan del Norte noted that a representative of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources of Tubay “testified that in the year 2007 until the present, the issue of siltation has been repeatedly brought to the attention of the concerned agencies and SRMI to no avail. There was no action made by the company.”

Dagani said there was some damage to the side of the pond but “it did not break down. It just overflowed.”

He said the overflow could have been avoided if the depth of the pond was increased or its area expanded.

Jamolod, according to the MMT report, was quoted as saying “silt traps at the mine site are more or less stable” but they made “recommendations for improvements.”

The report also said Lauro Hinaloc, chief of the Environment and Natural Resources division of Agusan del Norte, who also joined the site visit, “concurred that the company is not the cause of flooding but reiterated that at least the company admitted that they have contributed certain volume.”

Hinaloc complained about the overflow at the main settling pond, saying it can trigger flooding. He also recommended the desiltation of the main settling pond but engineers Renie Alvarado and Jerry Jamolod “explained that it is not advisable to desilt during this rainy season because the more it will contribute siltation on the water run-off.”

He recommended the installation of a monitoring gauge at the main settling pond.

The MMT’s four-point recommendation are: to improve the silt traps and dikes to avoid turbid overflow; install a monitoring gauge at main settling pond; increase the embankment of main settling pond and construct provision of spillwater; and install grouted line boulders along the open canal towards silt trap 4A. (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)