Quakes trigger questions on safety of mining ventures in Region 12

KORONADAL CITY (MindaNews/ 05 November) — The spate of powerful earthquakes and aftershocks that jolted mainland Mindanao last month casts doubts on the safety of mining ventures in Region 12 or Soccsksargen, which hosts small-scale gold tunnel mining operations and the Tampakan project, the largest known undeveloped copper and gold minefield in Southeast Asia.

Siegred Flaviano, chief of the Provincial Environment Management Office, confirmed Tuesday the suspension of mining operations in gold-rush T’boli town in the upper valley area of South Cotabato following the latest temblor on October 31.

The blue tents dotting the mountain in Barangay Kematu, T’boli, South Cotabato are the gateways to the gold tunnels, as photographed in October 2011. MindaNews file photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

“We suspended the small-scale mining operations in T’boli to assess the integrity and safety of the tunnels,” he said.

Flaviano told MindaNews that assessment was still ongoing and that the temporary suspension was a precautionary  measure to ensure the safety of miners

Records show there are over 100 tunnels operated by small-scale miners in the so-called Minahang Bayan or people’s mining site.

On the other hand, Jaybee Garganera, coordinator of Alyansa Tigil Mina, called on the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) to assess the stability of mining tenements, particularly in Soccsksargen where Sagittarius Mines, Inc. (SMI) is pursuing the US$5.9 billion Tampakan project.

“The structural and geological stability of mine areas and mine facilities must be clearly established by the MGB, so that the safety of communities around the mine sites are ensured,” he said in an emailed statement.

Garganera said the quakes could have “seriously damaged areas in South Cotabato, Davao del Sur and Sultan Kudarat,” provinces straddled by the Tampakan project.

Four powerful quakes —Magnitude 6.3 on October 16, Magnitude 6.6 and 6.1 on October 29 and Magnitude 6.5 on October 31 — were centered in North Cotabato and strongly felt across Region 12 and other parts of Mindanao.

Region 12 comprises South Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Sarangani and North Cotabato, and the cities of General Santos, Koronadal, Tacurong, and Kidapawan.

According to the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs), the region is “one of the seismically active regions in the country” because of the presence of several active faults in the area which include the M’lang Fault, Makilala-Malungon Fault, North Columbio Fault, South Columbio Fault, and the western extension of the Mindanao Fault (Cotabato- Sindangan Fault).

Phivolcs added that the Cotabato Trench is also a major source of earthquakes which can affect the region and that there are “other nearby local faults, some of which may be covered by recent deposits, and could be sources of small to strong magnitude earthquakes.”

In a case review of the Environmental Impact Statement for the Tampakan project, environmental and mining experts questioned the fault lines that will allegedly impact some of the mine facilities inside the mine area, Garganera said.

SMI officials could not be reached for comment but in a study, the firm stressed that its tailings storage facility (TSF) would be constructed and managed “with the highest international standards.”

“We are confident that the TSF designed for the Tampakan project would withstand the most extreme events. Just as high rise buildings exist in earthquake prone areas around the world and resist strong earthquakes, today it is absolutely feasible to design tailings dams to withstand such events,” the study said.

Garganera said that in the absence of MGB’s geologic assessment, the government must continue to shelve the Tampakan project.

The controversial mining project has yet to go into commercial stream because of the open-pit ban imposed by South Cotabato that pro-mining supporters questioned before a local court here earlier this year.

Garganera noted that “it is in the interest of the mining companies and their operators that the safety and welfare of both their employees and communities around their mines are assured.” (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)