GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/05 October) – South Cotabato Gov. Arthur Pingoy Jr. has suspended the province’s environment officer for 30 days in the wake of an ongoing investigation into the illegal mining activities in the province.
Pingoy said Wednesday he issued a memorandum suspending Provincial Environment Management Office (PEMO) chief Ramon Ponce de Leon effective last Monday to give way to an in-depth investigation regarding the illegal extraction and transport of copper ores from the mineral-rich mountains of Tampakan town.
He said Ponce de Leon was specifically probed for issuing the ore transport permit that was used by illegal miners in transporting the extracted ores from the area last year.
“The 30-day preventive suspension (for Ponce de Leon) was recommended by the fact-finding team that we earlier commissioned to investigate the matter,” the governor said.
But Pingoy clarified that the suspension order does mean Ponce de Leon was already found guilty of alleged involvement in the illegal mining activities in Tampakan.
He said the local government would give Ponce de Leon the chance to undergo a proper investigation and respond to all the accusations against him.
“If found guilty, he will be slapped with appropriate charges. But if proven innocent, he will immediately return to his work and would even be compensated by the provincial government,” he said.
Due to Ponce de Leon’s suspension, Pingoy designated Siegred Flaviano, PEMO’s Supervising Environment Management Specialist, as acting provincial environment chief.
Ponce de Leon was implicated in the illegal mining activities in Tampakan following the seizure by a police and PEMO team in August last year of some 50 tons of illegally-extracted copper ores from the area.
The team initially intercepted some 420 sacks of raw copper ore estimated at over 22 tons while being transported out of Tampakan town aboard a 20-footer container van.
Another 652 sacks of copper ore pegged at around 30 tons were also recovered in a raid in at least two sites in Barangay Magsaysay in Koronadal City.
The team recovered at least seven copies of an ore transport permit issued by PEMO to the Lemblete Integrated Small Scale Mining Association based in Barangay Kematu in T’boli, South Cotabato.
The permit, which was dated August 2, 2010, was signed by Ponce de Leon and South Cotabato Gov. Arthur Pingoy Jr. and was accompanied by receipts signed by Provincial Treasurer Elvira Rafael that acknowledged a payment of P9,475.
Ponce de Leon admitted signing the documents but had denied any involvement in the illegal mining and transport of the mineral ores.
Pingoy earlier said the mineral ores were reportedly extracted illegally from the mountains of Tampakan in South Cotabato and Columbio in Sultan Kudarat, which were part of the proposed site of the large-scale copper and gold mining project of the foreign-backed Sagittarius Mines Inc. (SMI).
The proposed mining area reportedly hosts the largest underdeveloped copper and gold deposits in Southeast Asia.
SMI, which is controlled by global mining player Xstrata Copper, is currently trying to acquire an environmental compliance certificate for its planned operations, which were set to begin by 2016. (Allen V. Estabillo/MindaNews)