Mercury level in Tampakan mine site drastically high

ORONADAL CITY (MindaNews/24 August) – Mercury contamination in the Pulabato River, which straddles the mines development site of foreign-backed Sagittarius Mines, Inc. (SMI), has reached 1.7 microgram per liter (mc/L) or 340 times beyond the maximum limit for the protection of public health.

Eileen Estrada, environment officer for Tampakan town in South Cotabato, confirmed on Wednesday that a test showed that mercury level in the river has drastically increased.

Based on the Department of Environment and Natural Resources Administrative Order 35, dated March 20, 1990, the maximum limit for mercury in inland waters is pegged at 0.005 mg/L.

“The study was commissioned by SMI,” she said in a text message.

Estrada said the high level of mercury contamination in the river was brought by banlas or sluice mining, an illegal form of small-scale mining activity.

While there was no written report to the Tampakan municipal government from SMI, Estrada said that a company representative mentioned the mercury contamination in one of their meetings regarding the banlas problem.

The local government unit should not be blamed because it is doing its part to curb the illegal mining operation, but is having a hard time since for operators, it is basically a “hide-and-seek” game, she said.

Estrada said that banlas operations have invaded the mountains of Tampakan where Sagittarius Mines operates, particularly in Kampo Kilot, Barangay Pulabato.

Last April, four people were killed in that area after a landslide which local authorities blamed on banlas operations.

Banlas employs the pouring of large amounts of water on a mountain’s surface to extract the rocks containing the gold ore, and then pan them with mercury.

Constancio Paye, Jr., regional director of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau, also confirmed the mercury contamination in Pulabato River.

“That was among the findings that was presented to the Provincial Mining and Regulatory Board late last year or early this year,” he told MindaNews separately, adding the mercury contamination in the river was detected way back 2007.

He warned that mercury contamination in the river would be disastrous to human health when they consume foods or animals that are dependent on the waterway.

“Mercury, when taken into the human body, is toxic,” Paye noted.

But Paye explained that in highly-mineralized areas, “mercury is naturally present with mercury used in illegal mining activities as a contributory factor to high toxicity level.”

John Arnaldo, Sagittarius Mines corporate communications manager, earlier said the company has been exerting efforts to curb the illegal banlas operations within their mines development site in cooperation with concerned government agencies.

The Pollution Control Division of the regional Environmental Management Bureau “was not aware” of the mercury contamination at the Pulabato River, but vowed to look into the matter.

Sagittarius Mines has confirmed conducting water quality tests in line with its plan to extract huge copper and gold deposits in its tenement.

Backed by Xstrata Copper, the world’s fourth largest copper producer, Sagittarius Mines has been pursuing the Tampakan project, potentially the single largest foreign direct investment in the country with a value of $5.9 billion.

Aside from the open-pit ban imposed by the provincial government of South Cotabato, the Tampakan project is facing social opposition from the local Catholic Church and security risks from the communist New People’s Army rebels. (Bong Sarmiento/MindaNews)