By Rhaydz B. Barcia
HIXBAR Gold Mines started its operations in the island town of Rapu-Rapu since 1936 until World War II broke out and resume operations at peace time until 1960, when Benguet Corporation, Inc. took over to explore the Ungay-Malobago mine deposits. In 1998, Benguet assigned its rights and obligations to Toronto Ventures Pacific, Inc. (TVI), a Canadian mining firm.
Immediately thereafter, TVI entered into a joint venture agreement with RRMI which later on purchased TVI’s interest in December 1999 and became to be known as Lafayette Philippines, Inc.
It was in 2003 that Rapu-Rapu Minerals, Inc. (RRMI) and Rapu-Rapu Processing, Inc. (RRPI) took over.
RRM Iand RRPI jointly put up the Rapu-Rapu Polytechnic Project (PRPP) that operated the Ungay-Malobago copper zinc with minor gold deposits in the eastern end of the island town in Rapu-Rapu, Albay.
Gold and silver bullions, copper and zinc concentrate were its main products. The mine open pit is within Barangay Pagcolbon and the other project facilities are within Barangay Malobago.
The industrial site has a total area of 180 hectares. The mine open pit occupy 26 hectares, five hectares for its processing plant, and 20 hectares more for road and camp facilities.
RRMI is directly involved in fulfilling corporate regulatory and government obligations in ensuring compliance with environment, safety and other responsibilities as required by both the national and local government regulations.
The major facilities owned by RRMI are open pit, run-of-mine (ROM) pad, upper tailings storage facilities, lower tailings storage facility, environmental area, workshop, explosives storage and handling area, offices, accommodations, nursery, mess and laundry, sewage treatment plant landfill and access roads.
The PRPI, on the other hand, undertook the processing and milling of copper and zinc ores, producing tons of copper concentrates and 26,000 tons of zinc concentrates per year.
The main facilities owned by PRPPI are power plant, gold processing plant and copper zinc processing plant or base metals plant, chemical storage area and concentrate storage and conveyor and wharf.
The DENR granted the project an environmental compliance certificate (ECC) on June 12, 2001 after the environmental impact assessment was completed in 2000.
The Rapu-Rapu Polymetallic Project (RRPP) immediately conducted exploration to project development which included resource drilling, metallurgical test work, engineering and environmental studies, and community development and awareness programs.
The Rapu-Rapu Processing Plant started with the commissioning of the gold plant in July 2005 under the ownership of Lafayette Philippines Incorporated (LPI).
The mining project is located in the southwest of Rapu-Rapu Island spanning the three barangays of Pagcolbon, Malobago and Binosawan. These three barangays were designated as the direct impact areas (DIA) of the project while the designated indirect impact areas were Linao, Santa Barbara and Tinopan.
The processing plant mined about 300 tons of rocks daily and produced about 150 tons of copper concentrate and about 100 tons of zinc concentrate daily even as it also produced gold and silver.
The project occupies a total area of 180 hectares, about 26 hectares of which were consigned to the open pit. The pit is within Barangay Pagcolbon while the other facilities were within Barangay Malobago.
The tailings storage facility and embankment occupied 41 hectares, largely within Barangay Binosawan. The pier is located within Barangay Malobago.
Domingo Nivero, 62, father of 5 children, a resident of Pagcolbon and former production lead operator of the mine firm told Bicol Mail that Lafayatte Mining’s Australian big bosses Rapu-Rapu mine to get the gold and mineral resources immediately from Rapu-Rapu mines despite of the opposition by Filipino mining engineers due to ill-equipped tailings dam for toxic chemicals.
Nivero said that the Filipino mining engineers recommended the construction of stronger tailings dam before mining operation could start due to the site’s geographical location which is within the route or corridor of strong typhoons.
But the Australian bosses would not relent and thus prevailed upon, ignoring the warnings posed by the Filipino engineers, Nivero said.
This is the first time that the plight of the Filipino mining engineers working at Lafayette mine came to light following Nivero’s disclosure in the interview with this reporter.
In less than a year of operation, Lafayette committed two consecutive mine tailing incidents in 2005. The events pond of the gold plant overflowed, releasing cyanide into the stream and the coast of Barangay Binosawan in October 11, 2005.
Subsequently, on October 31, 2005, the second salvo of cyanide and heavy metal-laden tailings from the tailings dam were released into the Maypajo Creek and the coast of Barangay Binosawan.
The twin incidents of toxic spillage on October 11 and 31 of that year due to torrential rainfall resulted to massive seashells and fish kills, as well as the devastation of coral reefs in Binosawan and nearby waters affecting thousands of fishermen in Albay and Sorsogon provinces. These incidents were reported by Bicol Mail and other Bicol media outlets.
Following the toxic spillage incidents, Albayanos and the Diocese of Legazpi launched a massive protest against the management of LPI. The move was supported by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines who appealed before then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to order the shutting down of the mines and repeal, as well, the Mining Act of 1995.
Interestingly, mining in Rapu-Rapu under Lafayette was the first large-scale mining project that started in 2005 under the Arroyo administration after the Supreme Court upheld the 1995 mining law in December 2004.
It was at that time that the Arroyo administration trumpeted the Rapu-Rapu Polymetallic Project under Lafayette as model of responsible and sustainable mining in accordance with strict guidelines laid down by the new mining law.
To appease protests against mining in Rapu-Rapu, the government then appointed Bishop Arturo Bastes of Diocese of Sorsogon to lead a fact-finding commission to look into the Rapu-Rapu mining spillage. A budget of P10M was allocated to carry on the probe.
Consequently, the Pollution Adjudication Board (PAB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources issued a cease and desist order (CDO) on Rapu-Rapu mine effective January 9, 2006.
Thereupon, LPI hired a new management under former Secrretary Carlos G. Dominguez who vowed to improve mine operations in accordance with government regulatory requirements.
Thus, the containment capacity of the tailings storage facility was increased from its old embankment level of 124 mRL to 139.3 mRL effective July 2006 to avoid repetition of toxic spillage.
Design of the tailings dam and the detoxification facility were rigidly reviewed and evaluated by different government agencies and experts from private agencies in the Philippines and abroad.
The PAB granted three stage operational tests run on the Base Metal Plant on July 9, 2006. Fifteen months after the October 31, 2005 spill, the final lifting order was issued by the PAB. The base metal plant commenced commercial operation on February 9, 2007.
On January 31, 2008, the Rapu-Rapu Project suspended its operations as it underwent financial constraints. LG International (LGI) and Korean Resources Corporation (KORES) acquired the shares and debt of Lafayette Mining on April 21, 2008.
Philco subsequently invited Malaysia Smelting Corporation (MSC) to invest in 30 percent of the Rapu-Rapu Project. The processing plant resumed operations under the new owners on October 23, 2008 after receiving the permits for waste water discharge and the operation of air pollution source and control installations.
For several years of mining operation after LG Kores, Albayanos were clueless about the rehabilitation plan which has been put on hold for more than two years now. Molina said that rehabilitation has been put on hold to evaluate and assess the company’s revision of the rehab plan vis-a-vis the funds so far spent for the purpose.
He also urged the mining firm to return of P125M that was withdrawn from the rehabilitation fund without due authorization and the fact that only 27 to 28 percent of the rehab works were actually done.
When asked by this reporter if the rehabilitation of Rapu-Rapu mine could be considered so far as successful, Molina noted the management tasked to do the job were complying with the rehab plan but that the rehab works themselves of to date could not be considered as successful.
Molina stressed that Rapu-Rapu has different climate condition with a year- round frequent rainfall affecting the area with acidic environment. “Rapu-Rapu is unique because of almost 11 months of bad weather with acidic environment,” he said.
But Molina reiterated the lessons learned in Rapu-Rapu mining operation that caused environmental hazard here.
“The lessons learned in Rapu-Rapu mining is that we should not rush the operation when the engineering preparation is not yet capable of holding waters that contain chemical waste or cyanide. The environment was sacrificed resulting to fish kills,” he said.
Molina said that throughout the country, the most successful mining operations in the country with notable rehabilitation works were the Rio Tuba in Palawan and Filminera in Aroroy, Masbate
Note: This reportage is produced by the author through the support of Philippine Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (PH-EITI) 2018 Journalism Fellowship, in partnership with Philippine Press Institute.