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May 5, 2003 at 9:48 pm | Posted in Kule, Politics, Writings | Leave a comment

Concerned citizens from the quaint town of Montalban are raising a ruckus over what they perceive as the impending hazards posed by extensive quarrying operations in the area.

With the expected onslaught of La Nina in the next few months, the denudation of mountains in this town and the entire province of Rizal in general was enough to evoke images of flashfloods and overflowing rivers cascading down towards the low-lying areas of San Mateo, Marikina and Pasig. Haunted by the possibility of another incident similar to the one that killed thousands of people in Ormoc years ago, residents of Montalban now fear for their lives. But the threat is of course, alarming enough to be a major concern for the entire metropolis.

This fear is not unfounded, and is certainly far from mere paranoia. Even as you read this article, silt, mud, gravel and rocks produced by the quarrying in Montalban continue to clog the waterways flowing down to the lowlands. When the rains start to pour in, it will create some sort of a false dam that will hold back the accumulated water. When it finally collapses, it will flood the tributaries of the rivers that bend through the valleys of Rizal down to the awaiting and defenseless metropolis.

Rock and Rolling River

The potential tragedy that is Montalban may be traced to the year 1960, when big-time quarrying operations made its way to the province of Rizal. Two companies, Philippine Rock Aggregates and Rizal Concrete Aggregates set-up bases in the town and were since then followed by other companies. Now there are at least 22 quarrying companies in Rizal. Non-government organizations like Sagip Kalikasan ng Montalban Inc., contend that at least 35 mountains have been leveled and 3 watersheds in the province have been damaged. It is also claimed that only 5% is left of the original forest cover in the province.

Upon the request of several NGOs, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources conducted an ocular inspection in selected sites in Montalban where massive quarrying operations are conducted. The DENR commissioned two hydrologists from the Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical Astronomical Science Administration (PAGASA) to confirm the accusations being charged against the quarrying companies. In the report filed by the hydrologists they said �the mountains were mostly barren …and there were also areas in the mountains that have been burned.� And with the coming rains, even the Bureau of Soils and Water Management (BSWM) admitted �When the rainy season comes, (rains) will eventually lead to flash floods that will devastate low-lying areas.�

This is still based on speculations though, and whether the grim scenario painted above will still depend largely on how severe La Ni�a�s effect will be in the next few months.

Solid as a Rock

Yet most are in agreement that the findings by the hydrologists still merit concern. Sadly though, government response has been limited to the temporary cessation of mining operations, and never to the revocation of licenses. After all, in the likelihood that these flash floods occur, they might happen on a regular basis. That is, if quarrying operations in Rizal are allowed to continue.

The reason why these operations continue despite the environmental hazards is simply mathematical. Mining companies rake in huge profits, estimated at around P1.5 million every day. Part of the revenue goes to the local government, which is why NGOs find it difficult to seek help in their own local government units. In fact LGUs sometimes even facilitate the issuance of clearances to mining companies even if they do not have any environmental rehabilitation programs to speak of.

Dr. Pastor Cruz, a community leader who heads the Montalban environment Protection and Development Council said �Mainam daw ang quarrying dahil nakakapagbigay ito ng kita sa bayan. May mga trenta porsiyento raw ang kontribusyon ng quarrying sa kita ng bayan (ng Montalban).� But somehow he doesn�t seem convinced, given that most of the 1,500 employees that the mining companies hire don�t even come from Rizal.

Also, whatever collectibles the municipality has with the quarrying companies, a huge amount remains uncollected. According to the NGOs based in Montalban, this amounts to at least P6.5 million.

But revenues aren�t what only impeded local officials from acting. Even the former mayor of Montalban Mayor Cuerpo as well as the ex-governor of Rizal, Casimiro Ynares, had interests in the mining companies because part of their businesses are related to quarrying. Cuerpo�s business for example, provided 10-wheeler trucks for the use of the quarry operators.

It would therefore seem less shocking that farmers have been driven away from their homes, and that 600 hectares of farmland have been cleared in order to make room for extending quarrying operations.

This led Inquirer columnist Neal Cruz to ask in his column: �If the feared flood happens and scores of people die, are you all willing to take the responsibility?� He and other concerned citizens got silence as a reply.

Hitting Rock Bottom

The Department of Environmental and Natural Resources recently cancelled the licenses of several quarrying firms in Montalban. However, Cruz insisted, �Shutting down four of them leaves at least 18 more in operation. According to him letting even one firm continue its operations can trigger the feared deluge that would drown low-lying areas in Marikina, San Mateo and Pasig.�

The Bureau of Soils and Water Management also conducted a separate survey whose findings support those made by the hydrologists. The BSWM said expected rainfall will come down at the rate of 38 cubic meters per hour. �This means that should there occur a continuous rain for an hour, flashfloods will threaten low-lying areas at the foot of Rizal�s much-abused heights.” These flashfloods will allegedly run at the speed of 100 kilometers per hour, enough to cause landslides. And what a catastrophe that will definitely be.

The DENR admitted that about half of the quarries to be found in the province are located within wildlife sanctuaries, which is prohibited by law. The DENR led by Secretary Antonio Cerilles washed the DENR�s hands off the affair by saying that it was the local government of Rizal that gave clearances to 30 of these operations and not their agency.

But the DENR can overturn any ruling made by a local government if it is found that they pose serious threats to the environment. The DENR has not done anything to this effect.

As the body empowered to coordinate with the LGUs and other regional government offices, it falls within the province of the DENR�s authority to implement stricter guidelines in such sensitive environment-related enterprises like quarrying. Yet the DENR remains passive to the apparent abuses committed by companies like those that operate in Montalban.

Ted Garcia who works with the NGOs based in Montalban opined that �When quarrying companies are found to be errant of the operating provisions of the law, they are warned, given time to correct the errors, and are fined a measly amount of P50,000 for every violation.�

Supposedly, if these violations are not rectified, the mining companies� permits to operate are to be cancelled. It will only take a strong resolve on the part of the DENR to check whether mining companies in Montalban are guilty or not. The closing of four companies somehow indicates that mining operations in the province are engaging ion dubious practices. There should be more cancellation of permits to operate in the near future.

For example the DENR issued a Notice of Violation to Monte Rock, a quarrying company in Rizal last August 21, 1998. To this day, the company has yet to comply with the DENR�s requirement to correct its violations.

Skycity my ass

To make matters worse though, there are reports that Filinvest, one of the country�s biggest real estate firms with problems when it comes to being environment-friendly has resumed its Skycity project. Skycity is touted to be a mixed-use land development plan that spans over 700 hectares of land in San Mateo, most of which will be occupied by a subdivision being built in the scenic heights of San Mateo. But the project was halted by the DENR due to yet undisclosed �5 non-negotiable points�.

But even with the absence of any clearance, eyewitnesses accounts confirmed that the company has resumed its operations. Back in 1996, Filinvest, without any go signal from the DENR but with the approval of the local government leveled off one mountain, destroying vegetation and removing the topsoil.

If indeed Filinvest is doing this again, it might add to the already terrible prospects of flashfloods. After all, with the topsoil removed and a mountain literally blown off the face of the earth, what will stop the rain water from rampaging towards the city?

There�s A Mining Law? Really?

For years, big time quarrying operations have continued to denude and flatten mountains in the province of Rizal, sanctioned in part by flawed laws like the Mining Act of 1995 which provided for the legalization of quarrying operations albeit subject to certain limitations that are so easy to slip through.

This law sought to appease growing discontent among green activists while at the same time tried to attract foreign business into the industry. Since the law is inutile in their view, a lot of environmental activists lobby for its repeal or at least modification.

But more concretely, what lobbyists have been able to accomplish is to entice Senator Loren Legarda chair of the Senate Environment committee into initiating a senate investigation into the quarrying operations in the municipality of Montalban as well as the entire province of Rizal itself.

The Mining Act is still being opposed by certain sectors, but the truth is, a revision is not high on the government�s agenda, much less a repeal.

Armaggedon Too Soon

From this it is clear to see that it will take the government�s renewed commitment to the pursuit of sustainable development which will ensure that another Ormoc will not happen again. But the irresponsibility on the part of several government officials and the driving avarice of some businessmen may just provide the leeway for such a nightmare to occur.

(writing for the Collegian as Simon Nathaniel F. Macario back in May 1999, an assignment that was haphazardly passed on to me.)


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