SouthCot board stands pat on open-pit mining ban

KORONADAL CITY (MindaNews/23 Jan) – The proposed $5.9-billion Tampakan copper-gold project of foreign-backed Sagittarius Mines, Inc. continues to suffer a setback locally after the Sangguniang Panlalawigan of South Cotabato stood pat on the province’s controversial ban on open-pit mining.

The provincial board reiterated its stance Monday in a resolution maintaining the validity of Section 2 Paragraph B of the Environment Code, which prohibits the open-pit mining method in the province.

The resolution approved by the plenary puts the issue of lifting the open-pit ban in the hands of the court.

Until such time that the court decides that it is illegal or unconstitutional, the open-pit ban enjoys the presumption of validity, the gist of the resolution showed.

“Our stand is only a court of law can declare whether the ban on open pit mining is valid or not,” Vice Gov. Elmo Tolosa said in a text message Wednesday.

In an order issued on May 22, 2012, lawyer Anselmo Abugan, Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) assistant secretary for legal affairs, rejected the appeal of Sagittarius Mines for the reconsideration of its rejected application for an environmental compliance certificate (ECC).

The junking of the appeal was anchored on the open-pit ban imposed by South Cotabato, the same reason cited by Environment Secretary Ramon Paje in rejecting on January 3, 2012 the firm’s ECC application.

“We are returning herewith the application documents with instruction to deny the same, without prejudice to resubmission, until the issues and concern on the use of open-pit mining method shall have been clarified and resolved by the company [SMI] with the provincial government of South Cotabato,” Paje said in his memorandum.

Sagittarius Mines has elevated its appeal to the Office of the President but no decision has been announced so far.

John Arnaldo, Sagittarius Mines external communications and media relations manager, said in an emailed statement last year that “the legal process is not a preferred option of the company” in settling the open-pit mining ban imposed by South Cotabato.

Earlier, Tolosa, the provincial board’s presiding officer, stressed that “the arguments of the provincial government on the primacy of local autonomy, referring to the ban on open-pit mining, have been valid along the way despite opinions on the contrary.”

For his part, South Cotabato Gov. Arthur Pingoy Jr. also said the open-pit ban remains in effect unless the court nullifies it.

The prohibition on open-pit mining method was approved in June 2010 before then South Cotabato Gov. Daisy Avance Fuentes stepped down from power. She is now the representative of the Second District of South Cotabato.

Last year, four Catholic bishops in the region issued a joint statement urging the stay of the province’s open-pit ban.

Cotabato Archbishop Orlando Quevedo, former president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, Bishop Dinualdo Gutierrez of the Diocese of Marbel, Bishop Guillermo Afable of the Diocese of Digos and Bishop Romulo dela Cruz of the Diocese of Kidapawan have petitioned the Sangguniang Panlalawigan of South Cotabato to refrain from amending the open pit mining ban contained in its environment code.

The bishops filed their petition to the SP with the attached signatures of about 30,000 residents from the four dioceses to maintain the prohibition on open-pit mining.

In September 2010, the Regional Mineral Development Council, chaired by Constancio A. Paye Jr., also the regional director of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau, filed a petition before the provincial board for the review and lifting of the open-pit ban, saying it is against Republic Act 7942 or the Philippine Mining Act of 1995.

Sagittarius Mines will employ the open-pit mining method in its Tampakan project to excavate an estimated 15 million tons of copper and 17.6 million ounces of gold, the company said. (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)