Australian mining firm says SouthCot's open pit ban best settled through SP amendment

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/23 April) — The Australian company which owns a third of the controlling equity at the Tampakan copper-gold project appeared optimistic that the ban on open pit mining imposed by the Environment Code of South Cotabato will be lifted, saying the preferred settlement should be through the Sanguniang Panlalawigan instead of the courts.

In its 2010 Annual Report released on Thursday, Indophil Resources NL conceded that in an investment environment struggling to recover from the global financial crisis, a new layer of uncertainty, referring to the open-pit ban, was the last issue needed by Indophil’s stakeholders.

“While the open pit issue has not been resolved, Indophil remains confident that it will be resolved amicably,” company chair Brian Philipps and Richard Laufmann, chief executive officer and managing director, jointly said in the annual report.

Although Indophil noted the support shown by President Benigno C. Aquino III, who had ordered a possible compromise deal to allow the Tampakan project to proceed, the Australian miner said the preferred mechanism for the resolution of the open-pit ban “remains the amendment of the environment code by the Sangguniang Panlalawigan.”

Aquino’s emissaries through the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, however, failed to convince the provincial government to agree to a compromise. The Department of Interior and Local Government had also ordered the suspension of the environment code but this only angered provincial officials.

The Tampakan project is managed by Xstrata Copper, the world’s fourth largest copper producer, through Philippine affiliate, Sagittarius Mines, Inc.

Provincial board member Ernesto Catedral, chair of the joint committees on environmental protection and justice and legal matter, said they have already conducted hearings on the request to review the environment code.

“I asked them (committee members) to submit their positions on writing,” he said, adding he has not given them a deadline for submission.

Catedral said the decision of the joint committees would be announced once all the members have submitted their positions.

Last month, South Cotabato Gov. Arthur Pingoy, Jr., signed the implementing rules and regulations of the environment code, with the open-pit ban remaining a stand-alone provision, meaning it was not issued any guidelines as the provision is very clear.

“I will implement the open-pit ban unless the court nullifies it or the provincial board amends it,” Pingoy said.

Without review and express amendment by the Sangguniang Panlalawigan, the governor has “no ability to vary the provisions of the environment code,” Indophil Resources said in its annual report.

However, the open-pit ban would not directly affect the Tampakan project as of now, since the company is expected to start commercial operations by 2016, it added.

Bulk of the copper gold deposits eyed by Sagittarius Mines lies beneath the mountains of Tamapakan town.

The Tampakan project faces opposition from the local Catholic Church and security threats from the communist New People’s Army, which on two separate occasions launched successful tactical offensives against Sagittarius Mines.

Indophil Resources owns 37.5% of the 40% controlling equity at Sagittarius Mines, with the 62.5% interest held by Xstrata Copper.

The 60% non-controlling equity shareholders of Sagittarius Mines are the Tampakan Mining Corporation and Southcot Mining Corporation, known as the Tampakan Group of Companies. (Bong S. Sarminento/MindaNews)