Albay sand at WPS reclamation? Mayon quarry probe goes on
By Rhaydz B. Barcia LEGAZPI CITY --- A significant volume of aggregates used in the reclamation by the Chinese government in the West Philippine Sea may have come from Albay, particularly from the foot of Mayon Volcano. This came to the fore in the ongoing investigation of the controversial quarrying operations around the foot of the iconic Mayon Volcano as it was revealed that cargo vessels loaded with aggregate extracts from the foot of Mt. Mayon would depart from the seaport in Albay four times a week towards the direction of the Visayas and Mindanao. In the investigation spearheaded by Vice Governor Harold Imperial, witness Lino Ferrer claimed that the four cargo vessels would leave the seaport of Sto. Domingo, Albay after having been loaded with sand and aggregates from quarries around Mayon Volcano. Ferrer, a radioman and former liaison officer of a quarrying firm and one of the three witnesses in the ongoing investigation of the controversial quarrying operation in the province claimed during the hearing at the Sangguniang Panlalawigan of Albay that irregularities in the collection of fees was just a tip of the iceberg as the four cargo vessels bound for Cebu in Visayas and Mindanao were loaded with volcanic materials with capacity of 2,000 cubic meters or 32,000 cubic meters a month or a total of 384,000 cubic meters of volcanic materials in a year. Ferrer was formerly working in medium category quarry concessionaire Newco and Padang Construction. The superior quality of construction materials extracted from the foot of Mayon volcano is the country’s most in demand construction aggregate, especially at this time of President Rodrigo Duterte’s “Build, Build, Build” construction program. With this, Albay Provincial Board Member Howard Pem Imperial, a brother of the vice governor, said that he would invite officials of the Philippine Ports Authority in the investigation to account how many cargo vessels loaded with Mayon volcano aggregates had disembarked from various seaports of Albay. Imperial said that it’s not impossible that the volcanic materials ejected by Mayon volcano might be part and actually used in the reclamation of the West Philippines Sea as some Chinese nationals had been transacting quarrying business in the past years to export Albay volcanic materials to China. Provincial Board Member Raul Rosal, former chairman of the committee on environment and natural resources, fired the first salvo in the investigation by exposing alleged irregularities in the collection of fees from quarry operators. But Rosal was eventually eased out of his committee chairmanship following his relentless probes on quarrying and mining in Rapu-Rapu Island a year ago. Rosal was replaced by fellow Board Member Job Belen whom critical observers accused of not doing his job well as regards the quarrying and mining issues. The Sangguniang Panlalawigan of Albay led by Vice Governor Imperial pushed the investigation after certain members of the board were accused of receiving and benefiting from P5M monthly pay off from quarrying operators here. “With the construction boom, the volcanic materials spewed out by Mt. Mayon’s eruption has become the most in demand aggregate of superior quality that are selling like hot cakes. Unfortunately, it [the Mt. Mayon aggregates] has now become the source of corruption inside and outside the capitol,” Rosal said during the continuing investigation. Manuel “Rolo” Orquico of Rolco Construction and Development Corporation from Daraga, Albay was one of the three witnesses who revealed the grease money lining the pockets of capitol personnel for undeclared aggregate hauling and deliveries thereby depriving the provincial government of true income from the massive quarry operations. Orquico revealed that his liaison officer was paying P7.00 for every cubic meter of aggregate transported in Albay and P25.00 per cubic meter if transported outside Albay on top of the regular payment due the provincial government. The money was allegedly given to Dave Cua of the province government’s environment and natural resource office (ENRO) task force without the latter issuing any official receipt. Rolco’s revelation was also affirmed by Lino Ferrer. Retired Judge Jose Noel Rubio, legal officer of the provincial government said that Urquico’s permit was revoked following illegal quarrying outside his concession area. Due to this, Rolco was slapped with P1.9M penalties and the company’s backhoe was reportedly confiscated sans a seizure order.. Vice Governor Imperial said the penalty against Rolco should have only amounted to P5,000 as per provincial ordinance on quarrying violation. Anyway, Urquico continued with his testimony saying that he was ready to settle his penalty for P500,000 and was instructed by Cua to proceed to Pepperland Hotel. When asked by Imperial why he went to Pepperland Hotel instead of settling the matter at the provincial treasurer’s office, Urquico said he was instructed by Cua to go to Pepperland Hotel. Pepperland Hotel, incidentally, is owned by Governor Al Francis Bichara. “I was instructed by Dave Cua to proceed to Pepperland. I was with Rey and we were waiting for Judge Rubio. We waited for two hours but Judge Rubio didn’t appear. What we saw there was [a certain] Ruiz,” Urquico said. He said that on top of the P500,000, the task force quarry also demanded another P350,000. “I could no longer afford to pay the additional P350,000, even the P500,000 is quite hard for me, though I’m reluctant to pay the said amount because I don’t want my business to be affected,” Urquico said. When asked by Imperial if he paid off the P500,000 being demanded, Urquico said that he didn’t give the amount to Ruiz because he feared he would be charged with additional P350,000 or a total of P850,000 even without a receipts as they were instructed by Cua to proceed to Pepperland instead of going to provincial treasurer’s office. He said that for not paying P850,000, his quarry permit was suspended last September 5, 2018. Vice Governor Imperial revealed that James Juan Ruiz is a policeman reportedly assigned in Mindoro Occidental but for unknown reason served as provincial task quarry (PTQ) enforcer in Albay. Provincial Board Member Imperial, meanwhile, said he sympathized with the victims of harassment and oppression by the provincial government through its task force quarry. “I decided to speak up and stand up for the people of Albay. I empathize with Urquico and other witnesses as this incident occurred in Albay for the first time,” he said. Board Member Imperial asked the National Bureau of Investigation to conduct a thorough investigation over the quarrying operations here. Board Member Rosal disclosed that despite his letter forwarded to Volunteers Against Crime (VACC) a few months ago, the anti-graft group headed by Dante Jimenez has allegedly failed to respond to his request for investigation. Rosal wants the case to be elevated to the Office of the Ombudsman for impartial investigation following Jimenez’ failure to act on his letter. Vice Governor Imperial said that 40 percent of mineral aggregates are transported outside of Albay province. “Assuming that 1,600,000 cubic meters times P25 charges on top of the regular payment it will generate P40M for nine months alone and 60 percent local procurement at P7 charge per cubic meter on top of the regular payment it will generate P16M or an equivalent of P56M; this amount will be pocketed by unscrupulous persons involved in the quarrying corruption. This is just a conservative estimate. But if the volume of aggregate is 4,000,000 cubic meters transacted based on the P200M income collected by the provincial government meaning the collection pocketed by individual is P256M which is a lot bigger than the amount paid to government’s coffer,” Vice Gov. Imperial said. For four cargo vessels leaving Sto. Domingo seaport weekly with capacity of 2,000 cubic meters times 4 or an equivalent of 32,000 cubic meters times 12 months or 384,000 cubic meters a year, the province will generate P19.2M in legal collections while the bribe takers will get P9.6M will be generated by the persons involved in corruption from P25 charges per cubic meter. Albay is the biggest supplier of aggregates for construction projects among the six provinces of Bicol and neighboring regions, courtesy of Mayon volcano. Before, anybody could amass volcanic materials for housing construction at about P500 per truck load. He said that from P30 pesos based on the provincial ordinance the rate increased by P20 due to executive order of governor Al Francis Bichara or a total of P50 per cubic meter market value. Albay Gov. Al Francis Bichara, for his part, said that during his reign quarrying operations have generated good income from appropriate taxes collected. He said that from P10M income in the past the province generated P200M under his watch. “Under my watch we were able to generate P200M against the P10M in the past. The collection we generated from quarrying is used in government’s development programs, including basic services and payment for loans left by the previous administration,” Bichara said. Bichara also denied corruption allegations. He said they were trying to strictly enforce collection of correct taxes from quarrying operations in the province.