Australian Mine Faces Layers of Lawsuits After Third Toxic Spill

MAKATI, Philippines, July 24, 2006 (ENS) - Communities from Rapu-Rapu island today filed a petition with the regional court for a permanent injunction to stop the operations of Lafayette Philippines, Inc., an Australian mining firm, amid allegations of a pesticide spill and fish kill in Albay Bay.

The spill occurred over the weekend during test runs of polymetallic mining operations on Rapu-Rapu, located in Albay province in the Bicol region, 350 kilometers southeast of the capital Manila.

Over 800 signatures from groups and individuals are on the petition seeking to end the polymetallic operations of the Rapu-Rapu mine.

The petition for a permanent injunction comes one week after a class action lawsuit filed July 20 at the Makati Regional Trial Court asking for a temporary restraining order on Lafayette Processing’s 30 day test run on Rapu-Rapu island.

People from the provinces of Sorsogon and Albay, 27 residents of Rapu-Rapu, environmental activist groups, fisher folk organizations, church people, militant organizations and television personalities filed the class suit against Lafayette Philippines, Inc. and Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Secretary Angelo Reyes.

Lafayette Philippines Inc. corporate secretary and spokesman Julito Sarmiento on Sunday alleged that the spill into Albay Bay was "sabotage." He told the "Manila Times" the company was being harrassed.

mine

Mining operation of Lafayette Philippines, Inc. on the island of Rapu-Rapu. (Photo by Aubrey Makilan courtesy Bulatlat)
The Rapu-Rapu mine was site of two consecutive cyanide spills in October 2005, and the mining company was ordered to stop operating by regulatory agencies last December.

The Rapu-Rapu Fact-Finding Commission, a body commissioned by Philippines President Gloria Arroyo after the cyanide spills, found in its report submitted May 16 that both Lafayette and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources were liable for pollution and other environmental and social problems the mine has caused in the provinces of Albay and Sorsogon.

But, contrary to recommendations of the commission, the mine was given permission earlier this month to restart with a test run.

The legal action filed today seeks a permanent halt to the company's operations, citing threats to people’s health and livelihood.

The petition highlights "gross and serious misconduct" by the company which led to previous spills and a range of unresolved problems, including serious long term acid rock drainage issues. It calls for the application of the precautionary principle to the company’s activities.

The petition also seeks to make Lafayette pay damages to the residents of Rapu-Rapu and nearby provinces who were affected by the two cyanide spills.

"The mining issue in Rapu-Rapu is a matter of public interest in view of the environmental hazards and adverse health impacts that Lafayette mining operation poses. The people of Sorsogon are supporting the class suit, and we hope we can get justice," said Bishop Aruturo Bastes who headed the defunct Rapu-Rapu Fact-Finding Commission.

"We filed a case because we want to stop the destruction Lafayette is causing in our island, in our environment, our future and our children's future," says Rapu-Rapu resident Nenita Cotorno, a 60 year old grandmother of seven.

Quiambao

Born in Quezon City, Miriam Quiambao was Miss Philippines 1999 and was named 1st runner-up in the 1999 Miss Universe pageant. (Photo credit unknown)
International beauty queen Miriam Quiambao also signed as a petitioner. "It is a shame that people's lives and the environment are being put at risk for the sake of the mining operation. I hope that people in the government will make decisions that will be beneficial to more people than a few," she said. "Lives, especially people's lives, are too precious."

Not everyone is opposed to the Lafayette mine. The municipal council asked the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to allow the Australian mining firm to stay and extract the island’s mineral resources.

According to the "Bulatlat" weekly magazine, Councilor Marino Barranda Jr. said the municipal government changed its stand on the mining project after dialogues with new Lafayette officials this spring.

"We are not against mining," said environmentalist Chin-chin Gutierrez. "We are against how mining is done in this country, without regard for our people, our environment, and our country's future."

"The situation cannot guarantee Rapu-Rapu Island’s preservation and barely provides enough for the economic, social or cultural sustainability of the present generation," said Gutierrez. "Why should people and the environment always have to pay the cost to benefit the few?"

"The petitioners, who are both residents and non-residents of Rapu-Rapu, share a common concern for the environmental, economic and health-related problems caused by the mining operations in the island," explains attorney Howard Calleja, one of the lawyers who filed the case.

island

The island of Rapu-Rapu (Photo by Aubrey Makilan courtesy Bulatlat)
"They are invoking their constitutionally guaranteed right to a balanced and healthful ecology as well as their right to health," Calleja said.

"The most compelling reason to restrain Lafayette’s mining operation is the occurrence of acid mine drainage. This environmental concern is something that even the DENR admits Lafayette could not control," said Calleja.

"Rapu-Rapu should be immediately rehabilitated. The acid mine drainage and its effects in the island should be addressed, not exacerbated by allowing the island to be mined further by Lafayette," said Frances Quimpo of the Center for Environmental Concerns-Philippines.

"It is very difficult to understand how the government can allow Lafayette to continue mining when it has already seen how Lafayette violated our laws, cheated the government of taxes, undermined the safety of the communities, and caused irreversible damages to our environment," said Antonio Casetas, on behalf of Sagip Isla, Sagip Kapwa, an islandwide environmental organization in Rapu-Rapu.

"We have remained vigilant and have continued to protest in the streets, in spite the fact that the island is now being militarized, because this is the only way we can express our position. Our once peaceful island is not only being destroyed, it is now wrapped in apprehension and fear. We hope Lafayette and the government will let us be," said Ariel Arieto, leader of Lambat-Bicol, a fisherfolk federation in the Bicol region.

"We do not trust that the Arroyo Administration, including the DENR, will heed our demands," said Clemente Bautista, national coordinator of the environmental activist group Kalikasan-PNE. "She has after all already demonstrated her bias for the Australian mining firm and has intransigently clung to her mining liberalization policy to protect the interest of foreign transnational mining."

"This class suit is a fight not only against Lafayette," said Bautista, "but also a fight in defense of our patrimony."