The Ugly Canadian

Special Report on the Mining Industry in the Philippines

(First two of a 3-part series of articles that first appeared in The Philippine News Today published in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada)

By Ted Alcuitas

(It has been close to 40 years since Placer Dome first signed a deal with President Ferdinand Marcos to open Marcopper Mine Limited in the island of Marinduque. Since then, Placer Dome has been plagued with problems from the operation, which it closed in 1996 due to a mine disaster.
The filing of a $115 million lawsuit against the Vancouver-based company last October 4 in Nevada, U.S.A. by the provincial government of Marinduque is another of a string of cases that has bedeviled Placer Dome, the world’s sixth largest gold mining company and the No.2 gold producer in Canada.
In this special report Ted Alcuitas examines the history of Placer Dome in Marinduque and the involvement of Canada’s mining companies in the Philippines.)

First of a series

Long before the Philippines was put on the world map as a jewel in the mining world, Placer Development was already doing geological exploration on Marinduque Island.

In 1956, the fledgling company based in Vancouver decided to expand its operations to Asia.

Placer Development Limited merged with two other Canadian mining companies, Dome Mines Limited and Campbell Red Lake Mines in 1987 to form what is now known as Placer Dome Incorporated. The two other companies operated in Ontario and Quebec but did not have international operations like Placer. In the 1930s and early 40s, Placer was already dredging for gold in Colombia, South America but has not yet ventured to Asia.

When it signed a deal in 1967 with newly -elected President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines to start Marcopper, little did it knew that it was shaking hands with the devil .

Five years later, Marcos declared martial law and give Marcopper – an open pit mining operation, a free reign devoid of government intervention. Marcos made sure though that he had a cut in the deal and owned 49 % of Marcopper leaving Placer the rest at 39.9%.

By 1975, Marcopper was dumping toxic or poisonous mine waste (tailings) into Calancan Bay in the village of Santa Cruz through 14 kilometers of pipeline from the top of its site in Tapian Pit at the rate of 2.5 tonnes per second, 24 hours a day. Between 1975 and 1991 an estimated 200 million tones were dumped into the coastal waters practically choking the rich fishing grounds of Sta. Cruz.

These tailings which looks like a concrete causeway, stretched seven kilometers into the sea and villagers say it would have reached Batangas across the Tablas Strait if it continued.

During this time, back in Canada, Placer Dome operated a similar open-pit mine in Houston, B.C. From 1980 to 1994, Placer Dome’s Equity Silver Mines dumped 42 million tones of tailings and 80 million tones of waste rock. After it abandoned the mine, Placer has agreed and is paying into a trust fund to clean up the waste. It is the first mining operation in Canada to be required under the BC Mines Act, to post a bond for maintenance in perpetuity. In 1997, the bond stood at $25 million.

Therefore, Placer Dome knew full well that what it was doing in Marinduque was environmentally wrong, yet when it was questioned about this it made the lame defense that the government (under Marcos) allowed them to do it.

Second of a series:

A chronology of disasters

(Despite its reported accumulated earnings of US$1 billion in its 20- year operations in the Philippines, Placer Dome Inc. (PDI) was plagued with problems from the start of its Marcopper Mines in Marinduque, Philippines, culminating in the lawsuit filed in Nevada by the Province of Marinduque on October 4, 2005. Recently, on October 31, another surprise was sprung on PDI when rival Barrick Gold, Canada’s biggest gold producer offered to take over PDI.

Ted Alcuitas followed PDI’s saga since he first visited Marinduque in 1998 as a member of an international fact-finding mission for the International Conference against Mining TNCs organized by BAYAN. Alcuitas reports that PDI used a combination of guile and subterfuge in order to surmount its problems. )

In 1975, four years after it started dumping poisonous mine waste into Calancan Bay, Marcopper was ordered to ‘cease and desist’ operations by the Philippine government due to environmental concerns and protest from local residents. Its original permit was for a submerged ocean disposal but Marcopper ignored the requirement when the submerged system failed and instead dumped its waste into the sea at surface level.

Using its connection to the dictator Marcos who secretly owned 49% of the company, Marcopper was able to resume dumping. After the downfall of Marcos in 1986, Marcopper was again ordered to find other disposal methods and in April 1988, the company was found to have been operating without a valid permit since February 1987.

Ten days after it was ordered to cease operations however, it suddenly cut off power to the island (which it is the sole provider) prompting then President Aquino to rescind the order and allowed Marcopper to resume operations. But the government ordered Marcopper to pay P30, 000 a day for rehabilitation of Calancan Bay. Marcopper did pay until 1991 when it unilaterally stopped payments after it stopped dumping into the bay. However, the impacts of the dumping remain to this day. It is estimated that some 200 million tons of mine waste was dumped into the bay covering an area of 80 sq. km. of fertile fishing habitat.

In December of 1993, the Maguila-Guila Dam collapsed killing two children. It resulted in the flooding of some 27 villages with toxic waste and poisoning of the Mogpoc River.

This was followed in March of 1996 by the collapse of a drainage tunnel in its Tapian Pit resulting in the biggest environmental disaster in Philippine history. More than three million tons of mine waste escaped destroying the island’s main river system – the 26-km. Boac River. The mine was ordered closed and remains close to this day. John Loney and Steve Reid, two of Marcopper’s top managers were criminally charged in the Philippines for the disaster. The case is still pending.

Marcopper not only is notorious for its environmental record but also for its poor industrial relations. In February 1995, it was hit by a strike of its 1,100 workers. It locked out its workers and brought in scabs to replace them. The Philippine military and national police and its own 100-strong security forces were also brought in an attempt to smash the trade union. The messy strike resulted in the mysterious death of an Australian labour consultant to Marcopper – Raymond Jeffrey on August 3, 1995. It is not known whether the murder has been solved.

During the 1998 fact-finding mission to Marinduque, members heard testimonies of bribery and outright harassment of people who opposed the mining operation. A Catholic parish priest of Sta. Cruz at the time, Msgr. Jose F. Oliveros, related how he had to seek refuge in the archbishop’s residence in Boac to escape an attempt on his life by goons believed to be working for Marcopper.

Following the Boac River spill and a massive people’s campaign to compensate the villagers, Marcopper countered with a strategically planned disinformation campaign including the publication of thousands of comic books defending the company.

For close to 40 years, Placer Dome has resolutely dodged its responsibility to give justice to the people of Marinduque.

In one final act of deception, Placer Dome, like a thief in the night, suddenly pulled out of the Philippines in March 1997, exactly a year after the tragic Boac River spill. It announced that it was divesting itself of its 40% share of Marcopper and henceforth, it considered itself no longer responsible for the disaster and its concomitant compensation.

Since then, Placer Dome has stuck to its constant refrain when confronted with the issue of its responsibility to the people of Marinduque – they are no longer a party to Marcopper.

“The simple fact of the matter is that Placer Dome is no longer an owner of this mine”, said President and CEO Jay Taylor at the company’s annual meeting in Vancouver in 2002.

The people of Marinduque will likely have to wait for its day in court for an answer when the case against Placer Dome will be heard in Nevada.