SM witnesses insist mall abide by the laws-A A +A
By JM Agreda
Thursday, September 27, 2012
WITNESSES of retail giant SM started testifying Tuesday in a series of court hearings scheduled until next week, backing the mall expansion project’s compliance with existing laws.
Prior to the testimonies of witnesses, lawyers of SM Investments Corporation, SM Prime Holdings Inc. and the Office of the Solicitor General representing co-defendants in the case Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Department of Public Works and Highways refuted testimonies of witnesses fielded by petitioners led by Cordillera Green Network and members of the Save 182 Movement.
Defense lawyers claimed testimonies of witnesses Prof. Celia Austria and Karlo Altomonte are inadmissible in court as they only gave layman’s views on the proposed mall expansion project and are not experts in environmental laws.
Lawyers also claimed testimonies of Baguio-Benguet Bishop Carlito Cenzon as irrelevant and do not constitute the opinion of Baguio residents while previous testimonies of environmentalist Dr. Michael Bengwayan were also dismissed by lawyers as his views are not independent because he is a petitioner in the case.
Defense lawyer Sigfried Fortun for SMIC presented evidence from the National Historical Institute that includes a listing of declared historical sites citing Luneta Hill is not a historical site.
Meanwhile, the first to testify among the mall chain’s witnesses was SM Investments Corporation vice president for Legal Operations lawyer Josephine Remollo.
She detailed the corporate structure of the mall chain and recounted how her department was able to get hold of the Temporary Environmental Protection Order on April 11 that resulted in the immediate cessation of earthballing operations within the mall.
SM Supermalls vice president for Operations (North Luzon) Engr. Bien Mateo testified and detailed features of the mall expansion project, as well as the process of how management was able to obtain the amendment to its Environmental Compliance Certificate, a building permit, and an earthballing permit.
Mateo also told the court, presided by Regional Trial Court Branch 5 Judge Antonio Esteves, of SM Baguio’s effort to replace earthballed tress through tree planting activities.
He testified some 7,000 pine trees were planted last June with a total of 15,000 trees already planted by the mall as certified by the DENR.
The executive testified the mall expansion is composed of nine floors, all above ground from Governor Pack Road allocated for retail establishments, parking and parking bays; an underground water reservoir; and a Sky Garden that will contain saplings to medium growth pine trees and other native and non-invasive tree species endemic to the city.
He also discussed contents of the Environmental Project Report and Management Plan (EPRMP), including the reasons why they have to construct the mall expansion with reports from experts from the Mines and Geosciences Bureau and their technical division on the soil erosion happening in Luneta Hill.
Prosecution lead counsel Christopher Donaal, meanwhile, in his cross examination, questioned the mall’s pay parking lot, claiming this will result in increased pollution in the Central Business District.
Mateo refuted this, saying the additional parking spaces do not equate to additional pollution and, instead, will help reduce vehicle fumes as motorists will no longer roam the city looking for parking adding the mall expansion will also reduce traffic in the area.
SMPHI lawyer Chrysilla Bautista also said the additional parking spaces do not also mean increased public vehicles in the city pointing out PUVs need a franchise.
Donaal also questioned why the mall expansion will construct in an earlier identified non-build-up area in the original ECC detailed in the 8.5-hectare SM Pines Resort Project. But Mateo said even if they build on the area, more than 30 percent of the entire SM property is still an open space, as prescribed by law.
On the second day, SM presented Environmental Management Bureau OIC Engr. Nestor Donaal testified the mall expansion is not an Environmentally Critical Project that requires public participation.
He said there is no mention of a social acceptability requirement in their department order regulating the issuance of an ECC.
Bautista said despite this, SM still conducted a people perception survey, interviewed key informants from nearby businesses and offices and got hold of an endorsement from the host barangay and the city mayor.
The DENR-EMB officer added a project can only be described as environmentally critical when it involves extractive activities like mining, major infrastructure like superhighways, smelting plants and petrochemicals.
Engr. Donaal also said that once the amended ECC is granted and the construction starts, they will form a Multi-partite Monitoring Team composed of the DENR, local government and a non-government organization to conduct monthly monitoring of the proponent’s compliance with the EPRMP and other environmental laws.
The EPRMP is submitted to obtain an amended ECC. It details the environmental impact of a project, the environmental management plan and the environmental monitoring report. It also contains other information such as the solid waste and sewerage waste disposal system, zoning clearance and justification for the modification of the original project which according to Engr. Donaal was all complied with by the mall.
Prosecution lawyer Jansen Nacar, in his cross-examination, questioned Engr. Donaal on the lack of social acceptability of the project but was panned by Judge Estevez, saying the prosecution cannot refute statements of its witness Environmental Management Bureau director Jose Miguel Cuna, who earlier said there is no need for public consultation nor social acceptability prior the issuance of an amended ECC.
Bautista, on the other hand, said the management always assured the mall will comply with whatever recommendations coming from the DENR.
Among other witnesses to take the witness stand in the coming days are City Building and Architecture Officer Engr. Oscar Flores, DENR officer Isabel Maloy and City Planning and Development Officer Evelyn Cayat.
Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on September 28, 2012.