By JUDE BAGGO
For more than a century, Benguet Corporation extracted gold and other minerals in Itogon, Benguet since its establishment on August 12, 1903. Without any doubt, Benguet Corporation re-shaped Itogon and its adjacent communities. Despite its claim of world class mining operations, Benguet Corporation left permanent scars of destruction on the surface and beneath the earth; caused rivers to become biologically dead and its mine wastes pose threats and concrete effects to people’s lives and communities.
Benguet Corporation as the oldest mining corporation in the country is responsible for the open pit mine site, underground tunnels, waste dump sites, mill, diversion tunnels and tailings dams in Itogon. And as proven by the experiences of communities, these mining activities of Benguet Corporation and Philex Corporation in Itogon led to a series of environmental disasters that claimed lives of the people and destroyed properties.
The land subsidence on October 22, 2015 in Virac, Itogon which swallowed several houses is not an isolated case. In fact, it gives us a dangerous picture on the possibilities of similar and bigger disasters caused by large scale mining. Benguet Corporation cannot just wash its hands on this disaster. Their long history of mining activities such as underground tunneling in the area is a hard fact that can explain the land subsidence.
In 1937, a disaster hit Gumatdang, Itogon’s oldest rice-producing village. Atok-Big Wedge drove in two gigantic tunnels on opposite sides of the village, immediately draining the water from its most abundant irrigation sources. In 1962, Benguet Corporation drove in another drainage tunnel that stretched between its Kelly mine in Gumatdang and its mines in Antamok. Instead of just draining water from the mines, the tunnel drained the water from a major irrigation source, drying up rice fields. Ventilation shafts have also drawn water away from surface streams, irrigation canals, and pond fields. In addition, the felling of timber to shore up underground tunnels has denuded surrounding watersheds, aggravating water loss.
Today the residents of these communities suffer the lack of water supply. The water tables have subsided as deep mining tunnels and drainage tunnels disrupt groundwater paths. Tunneling often leads to a long-term lowering of the water table.
Not only does mining cause water subsidence, it also deprives farming communities of much-needed water. The industry requires large volumes of water for mining, milling and waste disposal. Mining companies have privatized numerous natural water sources in Itogon and Mankayan for the purpose. Now, the people in many mining-affected communities have to buy water for drinking and domestic use from outside sources through water delivery trucks, or by lining up for hours in the few remaining water sources to fill up a gallon of water.
Mining companies in Benguet is done by surface mining as well as underground tunneling and block caving. Also significant are other surface excavations by the mining companies for the installation of facilities, such as portals for deep mining, lumber yards, ore trains, mills, tailings ponds, power houses, mine administration offices, and employee housing.
On the surface, Benguet Corporation flattened the mountains of Antamok in barangay Loacan and Keystone in Ucab, Itogon thru its open pit mining operation. Open pit mining is the most destructive as it requires removing whole mountains and excavation of deep pits. Generally, open pits need to be very big – sometimes more than 2.5 kilometers long. In order to dig these giant holes, huge amounts of earth need to be moved, forests cleared, drainage systems diverted, and large amounts of dust let loose. According to the Benguet Corporation, “Any open-pit mining operation, by the very nature of its method, would necessarily strip away the top soil and vegetation of the land.” Sure enough, open-pit mining in Itogon by Benguet Corporation has removed whole mountains and entire villages from the land surface.
Abandoned mine sites like Benguet Corporation and Itogon-Suyoc Mines in Itogon have long-term damaging impacts on rivers and their surrounding fields because of the build-up of acidic mine water. Acid mine drainage comes from both surface and underground mine workings, waste rock, tailings piles and tailings ponds. Pollution of this kind can continue long after a mine is closed or abandoned, and the water that leaches into the ecosystem is frequently acidic, killing rivers and posing health risks to local communities.
Benguet Corporation had denuded the pine forests of Itogon, Baguio, Tuba, and Tublay. When they ran out of timber, the mining company expanded their logging to Bobok in Bokod. Apart from denuding the forests, the company also ruined the groundwater systems of Itogon first with deep exploration drilling and the driving of tunnels then with open-pit mining. And apart from destroying watersheds and groundwater systems, Benguet Corporation also polluted surface water channels, land surfaces, and the air – with sulfurous oxides from the exposure of massive amounts of mineral overburden, acid mine drainage, and huge volumes of mine tailings laden with cyanide, other poisonous ore-processing chemicals, and toxic concentrations of dissolved heavy metals. The sediments and contaminants were transported by rivers through Pangasinan to the Lingayen Gulf where they sometimes caused fish kills. Up to the present, sediments from both active and abandoned tailings dams continue to cause flooding and destruction of rice fields and fishponds in the lowlands. They are also quickly silting up the San Roque dam.
Accompanying mining operations is the construction of tailings dams needed to contain the mine wastes. These tailings dams were built across the river beds in various parts of Benguet. However, most tailings dams are not leak proof and have not been strong enough to withstand torrential currents during the typhoon season, and the major earthquake that rocked Northern Luzon in 1990. Through the years, tailings dams in Benguet have proven incapable of containing the volume of tailings that came from the mills. Time and again, these tailings have breached their dams. Benguet Corporation constructed 5 tailings dams. Lepanto has 5 tailings dams, 2 of which collapsed. Philex has 3 tailings dams, 2 of which collapsed in 1992 and 1994. In 2001, tailings breached another Philex dam. Itogon-Suyoc has 1 tailings dam that collapsed in 1994. Thus we have a situation where burst, broken, weak and leaking tailings dams dot the major river systems of the province – the Abra River, Agno River, Antamok River and Bued River.
This long history of mining in Itogon resulted to an irreversible and long term effects to the environment and most especially to the people. Not even sugar-coated statements from Benguet Corporation cannot hide a century of irresponsible mining and the inability and neglect of the government to regulate, monitor and implement laws to protect the people and the environment from the abuse of mining corporations.
The dangers posed by the open pit mines, underground tunnels, tailings dams are real. Adding to this dilemma is the changing weather and climate and other natural disasters such as typhoons and earthquakes. When all combined, it is like a ticking bomb which can explode anytime.
Given the above mentioned experiences and previous mining disasters, the Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA) is very concerned about the safety and welfare of the people and communities in Itogon and in the region where there are large-scale mining operations. CPA along with communities has been campaigning against the entry of large scale mining and other forms of development aggression in the region. One of the main reasons of this opposition is the destruction of the environment such as mountains, rivers, flora and fauna which are the primary sources of survival and livelihood of the people.
CPA joins and supports the people of Itogon to demand Benguet Corporation to rehabilitate and compensate the communities affected by its long mining operation. Benguet Corporation should also stop the proposed operation of Balatoc Recovery Project and its small scale mining scheme.
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) should also be held accountable for the disasters in Itogon caused by mining. Should the DENR have been dedicated and religiously did their job to implement mining laws, the underground tunnels of Benguet Corporation should have been back filled. This could have avoided the land subsidence in Virac, Itogon.
After a century of mining plunder, Benguet Corporation should leave the people of Itogon. More than development, Benguet Corporation left a legacy of open pit, underground tunnels, pollution of rivers and tailings dams in Itogon.
A century of mining is enough. Benguet Corporation, get out of Itogon. # nordis.net