"Can the agency override the people’s will?"
If there’s one good thing this pandemic has brought us, it is the opportunity for nature to heal itself. With transportation and factories literally grinding to a halt, the air has never been cleaner. In a short period of time, the waters took a respite from absorbing waste humans dispose of wantonly. Barren land has started to show signs of greeneries sprouting out.
Unfortunately, this benefit we had ironically gained from the pandemic had never been felt by the people from small town of Angono in Rizal Province, the town which prides itself as the Art Capital of the Philippines, the home of the Higantes Festival – thanks but no thanks to Concrete Aggregates Corporation and its partner, LaFarge Holcim.
For the past five decades starting in 1969, these two companies have been extracting gravel in a hilly part in Angono, covering 212 hectares. This gravel mining operation is covered by two Mineral Production and Sharing Agreements – MPSA No. 032-95-IV, covering an area of 192 hectares, and MPSA No. 055-96IV covering an area of 19.99 hectares. The former agreement supposedly expired last June 15, and the latter is set to expire on October 23 next year.
According to the town’s local officials, the two companies applied for a seven-year quarry extension in 2017 but which they only learned when they asked the companies lawyers in a public hearing in January of 2018.
The town officials said the quarries shall have until 2029 to operate should the Department of Environment and Natural Resources grant their application. However, they added the Mines and Geosciences Bureau of the DENR has the discretion to approve extensions of up to 25 years in accordance with the Mining Act of 1995.
And having already extracted more than 400 million metric tons of gravel from the hills of Angono, these two companies will completely bleed the town of its remaining 58 million metric tons of gravel should DENR approve of its extension.
And this is why the whole town – from its highest official down to its last citizen – is calling on the DENR to reject the companies’ application for an extension.
In October last year, Angono’s Sangguniang Bayan passed Resolution No. 171 which calls for the total rejection of the extension of the quarrying operations of CAC and its partner, LaFarge.
In its resolution, the SB noted that the disadvantages brought about by the two companies’ operation far outweigh the P33 million annual fees they pay to the municipality.
Among the negative effects of the quarrying operations are: The wanton destruction of the environment as brought about by the cutting of trees within the area and its vicinity which has brought severe flooding to the low-lying areas of the town whenever a strong typhoon strikes; The imminent threat of severe damage should the Big One hits as Angono is less than 15 kilometers away from the nearest faultline which is in Pasig City; exposure of town residents to pulmonary health problem as ambient air test conducted on the quarrying areas failed. In 2015, 47 people living near the quarrying site were diagnosed with pulmonary health problems. The number has grown to 72 in 2016, 66 in 2017 and 102 in 2018.
LaFarge Holcim, for its part, is quick to defend itself saying it is practicing responsible mining and is even undergoing progressive rehabilitation of areas affected by its operations through tree planting.
The company adds its Angono operations also use a Zero Discharge System water treatment in its settling pond that prevents wastewater from being discharged from nearby water systems such as Laguna de Bai.
It also claims in its website that it is a world leader in implementing international standards and sustainability in mining.
But having stayed in Angono for almost two decades, from 1993 up to 2010, I can bear witness to the allegations of the SB in its resolution. Many times, I have witnessed floods running down the entire town of Angono, not only with rainwater but accompanied with mud and gravel every time Lafarge and CAC release water from their holding pond at the height of a typhoon. One time, an entire shanty was even carried by the flood waters coming from CAC into the Angono River down to the waters of Laguna Lake.
Ask every Angoeño and you can hear the same answer – the quarrying site spells hardship for every town resident in the low-lying areas.
The sad part is, even if the town would reject its application, the DENR reportedly can override the decision of the local government unit and grant the two companies an extension for its operation.
But due to the community quarantine imposed by President Rodrigo Duterte on most parts of the country, it’s not clear whether the DENR had already acted on the application, although according to Angono Vice Mayor Gerardo Calderon, the application for extension is still pending before the DENR.
Last January, before the pandemic hit, residents of Angono gathered in front of the town’s municipal hall and held a rally highlighted by candle-lighting and the signing of a manifesto against the continuation of mining operations by LaFarge Holcim Holdings and the Concrete Aggregates Corporation of the Ortigas Group.
In their candle-lighting rally, Calderon lauded the townsfolk for uniting behind their call to end the quarrying operation. Fifty years is too much.
The ball is now in the court of the DENR. Will it heed the people’s call?