‘South Cotabato open-pit ban review not urgent’

KORONADAL CITY (MindaNews/29 July) — Plenary action on requests to amend the controversial environment code that bans open-pit mining may drag longer as members of the South Cotabato Sangguniang Panlalawigan “are not rushing their judgement.”

“There’s no sense of urgency,” Vice Gov. Elmo Tolosa, SP presiding officer, said early this week when sought on the development of the controversial measure.

As this developed, South Cotabato Gov. Arthur Pingoy, Jr., said on Friday the provincial executive department remains firm in implementing the open-pit ban unless the SP lifts it or upon a court order.

He reiterated the stance in response to alleged information that the provincial government will allow open-pit mining.

“That’s just their feelings,” Pingoy told MindaNews, adding the province is set to hold a public consultation on the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) recently completed by Sagittarius Mines, Inc.

“British experts will come maybe late August or early September so we can hear an independent or second opinion on the company’s EIA, and which maybe the basis for the SP to decide whether they will review the open-pit ban,” he added.

The ban on open-pit mining, approved in June last year, was seen to pose a risk to the planned $5.9-billion Tampakan copper-gold project of the foreign-backed Sagittarius Mines.

Tolosa noted that even if the implementing rules and regulations of the environment code have been approved, there’s nothing to implement so far because Sagittarius Mines is still in the exploration stage.

The mining company, which is controlled by Xstrata Copper, the world’s fourth largest copper producer, earlier declared its commercial production phase to start in 2016.

Tolosa did not give a timeframe when the provincial board members could come up with a decision whether to review the open-pit ban.

He also admitted the lingering strong lobbying from pro-mining groups and the national government to lift the prohibition on open-pit mining.

It has been 10 months now since the filing of a formal petition to review the environment code before the provincial board. The petition said the ordinance was contrary to Republic Act 7942 or the Philippine Mining Act of 1995 and to a “great extent” Republic Act 8371 or the Indigenous People’s Rights Act of 1997.

The matter remains at the joint committees on environmental protection and justice and legal matters, which are both chaired by Ernesto Catedral.

Catedral, a lawyer, earlier said he asked the committee members to submit their positions in writing, and that there was no deadline given to them.

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

Last March, Pingoy signed the environment code’s IRR, 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,” the governor said then.

The Tampakan project, touted as the largest known undeveloped copper-gold deposit in Southeast Asia, is stoutly opposed by the local Catholic Church and other civil society organizations on concerns over human health, the environment and food security.

It also faces security risks from the communist New People’s Army rebels, which launched successful offensives against the company on two separate occasions since 2008.

The company’s presence has also caused a boundary dispute between South Cotabato and Davao del Sur provinces, which is now being addressed by legislators of both areas.

Amid all these, Sagittarius Mines continues with stakeholders’ consultations and working towards acquiring an environmental compliance certificate, which would give it the right to go on commercial stream. (Bong Sarmiento/MindaNews)