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Environment chief asks Duterte to halt second review of mines

Posted on March 08, 2017

THE COUNTRY’S Environment chief has asked President Rodrigo R. Duterte to halt a second review of 28 mines that she ordered closed or suspended, challenging its legality despite initially supporting it.

Environment Secretary Regina Paz 'Gina' Lopez speaks to President Rodrigo R. Duterte during the latter's meeting with the Cabinet in this photo from the Presidential Communications Operations Office.
The U-turn by Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Regina Paz L. Lopez comes as she faces pressure to defend her decision to shut more than half the country’s metal mines, a move that prompted an industry outcry and concerns about lost revenue.

The government’s Mining Industry Coordinating Council (MICC), an inter-agency panel that includes the Finance department, is conducting a review of the mines following criticism from miners that the original decision was baseless and lacked due process.

“The MICC is not mandated to do a review of any mining operation. The only agency that can do a review of mining operations is DENR, and that’s what we’ve done,” Ms. Lopez told Reuters, referring to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources which she heads.

Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto C. Abella declined to comment on Ms. Lopez’s latest move, saying it was not discussed in a Cabinet meeting last Monday.

Mr. Duterte, who last year warned miners to abide by stricter environmental rules or close down, has so far backed Ms. Lopez, a committed environmentalist, in the increasingly contentious dispute.

She faces a Philippine legislative hearing set for Wednesday to confirm her appointment after an initial hearing was postponed last week. She is among just a few of Mr. Duterte’s appointees yet to get the green light from lawmakers.

One of her undersecretaries, Arturo Valdez, said in a DENR statement on Tuesday: “Tomorrow’s CA vote is important.”

“Not only will our Senators and Congressmen be deciding on the fate of a good person whose heart and mind has been proven so many times to be in the right place, but her cause, her fight is righteous.”

Amid mounting oppositions to the appointment of his Environment chief, Mr. Duterte on Tuesday asked the bicameral Commission on Appointments (CA) to allow Ms. Lopez “to present her case”.

“We cannot be allowing diggings forever in every nook and corner of the mountain ranges. It would spell disaster,” Mr. Duterte said in his speech at a ceremony headed by the Agriculture department at Malacañang.

“She has a good case, Gina. And hopefully we can strike a happy compromise there, but more I think, on the side of protecting the public interest.”

The President then clarified that he is “not against mining per se” and acknowledged that the mining industry generates “dollars” for the government but “somehow we have to look at the other way, in a different perspective.”

Ms. Lopez on Feb. 2 ordered the closure of 23 of 41 mines in the world’s top nickel ore supplier and suspended five others to protect watersheds after a months-long review last year by the environment agency.

Members of the MICC met a week later and agreed to a second review of the affected mines, issuing a joint resolution signed by Ms. Lopez and Finance Secretary Carlos G. Dominguez III who co-chair the mining council.

“Whether I signed it or not the fact of the law is the law,” Ms. Lopez said.

The MICC was created through a 2012 executive order by former President Benigno S. C. Aquino III and tasked, as part of its duties, to review mining laws and regulations and ensure their implementation.

Ms. Lopez said she’s challenging the review after learning that the second assessment will cost P50 million ($1 million). “I’ve already done the review, what more do you want?” she asked.

Mr. Dominguez said he was surprised by Lopez’s about-face, recalling that it was Ms. Lopez’s lawyer who drafted the Feb. 9 resolution, ABS-CBN News reported, citing Mr. Dominguez.

Miners have contested the closure and suspension orders, which a mining industry group has said would affect 1.2 million people that depend on mining for their livelihood. -- Reuters with Ian Nicolas P. Cigaral and Janina C. Lim