Saturday, February 2, 2008

Marinduque Mining Project: The Worst Mining Disaster in the Philippines


In 1969, Marcopper Mining Corporation (MMC) began the mining copper operation in Marinduque, Philippines. With a US$40-million loan from the Asian Development Bank (ADB), Placer Dome, Inc. managed and controlled MMC, promising 30,000 tons of run-of-mine output per day. Placer Dome, which is 40 percent owner of MMC, secured and guaranteed the loans from the ADB.

However, Marinduqueños experienced a series of environmental mining-related disasters in the last 30 years. From 1975 to 1991, Calancan Bay became the dumpsite for millions of tons of mine tailings by Placer Dome’s operation. MMC-built Mogpog river dam burst in 1993, flooding the downstream villages in Mogpog. Two children died in the incident.

In 1996, about 4,400 people or 700 families were isolated by flash floods resulting from the cracked of 2.6-kilometer long drainage tunnel which was connected to the mine’s waste disposal pit, spilling out a total of 1.6 million cubic meters of mine tailings into Makalupnit and Boac rivers. In 1998, President Fidel Ramos ordered the province of Marinduque in a “State of Calamity.”

In spite of numerous moves by local communities and non-government organizations (NGOs), and surviving cease-and-desist orders by the National Pollution Control Commission during the Martial Law, MCC continued its operation. It was later found out that 50 percent of the company was owned by the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos through four front companies. (Roja Salvador, 2001)

In March 1997, the ADB and Placer Dome agreed to transfer the bank’s interest to MR Holdings, Ltd., which is a company created by Placer based in the Cayman Islands. (Keith Damsell, May 1999) Around US$20 million was paid to the ADB. After the payment of the outstanding loan and return of the Covenant, the project documents at the Bank were no longer accessible. The ADB said that it was no longer involved in the project and the project is not covered by the 1994 Information Disclosure Policy. (James Esguerra, July 2003) In effect, the ADB washed off its hands from the tragedy.

Environmental and Social Impacts

The Marcopper Mining disaster directly affected the municipalities of Sta. Cruz, Mogpog and Boac. Marinduqueños rely heavily on fishing and farming. But due to the mine spill, Calancan Bay, Boac and Mogpog rivers were contaminated. Marcopper’s destructive impact did not only lead to the death of Marinduque’s rivers but also the contamination of the populace. Not to mention the lives that have been lost. The communities were left with a dead river system, contaminated environment and very ill population.

Calancan Bay

For 16 years, Marcopper dumped 200 million tons of mine tailings in Calancan Bay via surface disposal. This was done without the consent of the villagers who mainly rely on the bay for food and livelihood. The mine spill covered 80 square kilometers of the rich corals and sea grasses of the bay. This affected 2,000 fishing families, leaving them in the brink of starvation. (Catherine Coumans, 2005) Houses and rice fields were covered with dust storms.

At present, the tailings are exposed in the bay and are driven into villages along the bay. The villagers have not been compensated by Placer Dome until now. Metal contamination and chronic lead poisoning of victims remain untreated until today. (Rowill Aguillon, 2004)

Mogpog River

In 1991, a dam was constructed in the Maguila-Guila Creek despite the objections of the local communities in view of its potential negative impact on their source of food and water. The project aimed to hold back the contaminated silt from the San Antonio pit.

However, after two years, the dam collapsed. Downstream villages were flooded, houses were swept away, livestock and poultry were killed, and crops were destroyed. Two children were also swept by the flash flood. The collapse of the dam did not only cause contamination of the river but also eruption of skin diseases, plastic anemia and metal poisoning of the villagers. (Aguillon, 2004)

Placer Dome denied its responsibility, blaming the tragedy to a typhoon. However, the rehabilitation of the dam included an overflow, which is in a way acknowledging that faulty engineering caused the disaster. (Coumans, 2005) At present, toxic waste behind the dam continues to overflow into the river. Bagtuk, a specie of crab that people consume for subsistence, completely disappeared after the tragedy.

Boac River

In March 1996, massive tailings spilled into the 26-km long Boac River. The river was contaminated with three to four million tons of metal enriched and acid generating tailings immediately after a badly-sealed drainage tunnel at the base of Tapian pit burst. This translated to around 1.6 million liters of waste that spilled into the river, killing the river instantly.

This prompted a team from the United Nations to investigate the extent of the impact that the Marinduque Mine Spill, as what the tragedy has been called ever since, has caused the environment and the townsfolk. UN identified unacceptable levels of heavy metals in some parts of the river and toxic wastes leaching into the river due to faulty waste rock siltation of the dam.

In March 1997, the Department of Health and the University of the Philippines (DOH-UP) conducted health studies and concluded heavy metal contamination due to the use of the river as run-off for Marcopper’s disposal site since the 1970s.(Aguillon, 2004) The DOH-UP investigative team found out unacceptable lead and mercury level in seven of the 22 children tested; two adults tested positive for lead contamination.

In October 1997, DOH-UP also collected blood, air and soil samples in and 7 km out from the causeway. All of the 59 children tested proved to have unacceptable levels in their blood; 25 percent of them had unacceptable blood cyanide levels. Also, the soil samples have unacceptable levels of lead, cadmium and elevated levels of copper and zinc. Lead values were present in the air samples, exceeding the standards of the US Environmental Protection Agency. (Aguillon, 2004) in March 1998, President Ramos declared Marinduque in a “state of calamity” based on the findings of DOH-UP investigative team.

Placer Dome spent almost US$80 million for compensation, medical treatment, infrastructure development, river rehabilitation, flood risk assessment and water projects. However, it still maintains its position that it is not responsibile for the tragedies in Calancan Bay and Mogpog River, claiming these events as accidents. Until now, Boac River compensation and rehabilitation are not yet completed. Compensation to communities in and rehabilitation of neighboring towns remain uncertain. (Roja Salvador, 2001)

Lessons Learned

Sound Design. Evidence that came from the numerous investigative teams, such as UN, Oxfam Australia, DENR and NPCC, among others, showed that the environmental assessment did not ensure the achievement of sustainable development. There was poor integration among the social, economic and physical aspects of the project. (James Esguerra, 2003)

Corruption and Poor Governance. Given the Marcos’ large stake in Marcopper, the former dictator overruled the cease-and-desist orders from the NPCC and allowed Marcopper to continue its operation.

Accountability and Transparency. The case of the Marcopper Tragedgy clearly showed how the ADB made it difficult for CSOs monitoring the disaster to access relevant documents, such as Environment Management and Mitigation Plan, internal assessment of the Bank, and its basis to finance the project, among others. (James Esguerra, 2003) Such could be used to strengthen the case of the claimants.

The ADB withheld information from the public stating that the Bank is no longer involved in the project and that the project is not covered by the 1994 information disclosure policy. This is contrary to what the ADB claims that it is committed to improving the welfare of the people in the Asia and the Pacific.

Environmental management. The Marinduque Mine Spill clearly shows the need for a stricter enforcement of environmental policies. The government should not prioritize attracting investors to generate profits over environmental protection and sustainable development of the community. Mining investments should not be railroaded but should go through tedious processes.

Participatory planning and governance. The Marinduque Mine Spill clearly shows the importance of the participation of the local community in planning, monitoring and evaluation of projects given that they have better knowledge of the project site and socioeconomic status at the local level. Not conducting consultation and securing the consent of the local community is just the same as violating their human rights that could lead to tragedies like the Marinduque Mine Spill. In spite of public clamor against the project, Marcopper continued with it.

The ADB is also responsible to the incident. It gave Marcopper and Placer Dome a hand by providing a loan in its operation. The Bank should not say that it is no longer involved in the project just to escape/deflect the global embarassment and criticism caused by the mine spill. The Bank should have provided the information needed during CSOs’ investigation to strengthen the claims of the victims instead of using its legal anecdotes to wash its hands off the environmental and social mess. The

Bank should have also assisted the affected communities in pursuing the case against the Placer Dome given its strong influence with its member countries.

Aguillon, Rowil. “Mining Debt: A Victim’s Point of View.” 1/31/04. (

Coumans, Catherine, Ph.D. “Phillipine Province Files Suit Agains Placer Dome – Background.” 10/4/05. (

Esguerra, James. “Case Study Four: Marcopper Mining Corporation (Philippines).” ADB and the Environment: A Monitoring Framework for the ADB’s Environment Policy. PRRM, NGO Forum on ADB: Manila, 2003.

Salvador, Roja. “Undermined.” Community & Habitat. Is. 9. PRRM: Manila. 2001.