KORONADAL CITY -- South Cotabato stands firm on the controversial ban on open pit mining even if the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has issued an environmental compliance certificate (ECC) to the Sagittarius Mines Inc. (SMI).

"Previously, (DENR Secretary Ramon) Paje disapproved the ECC of SMI because of our ban on open pit. Now, the agency has a different stand," South Cotabato Governor Arthur Pingoy Jr. said on the phone.

Pingoy said the Provincial Government will not back down just because of the ECC approval of the DENR for SMI, which is controlled by Xstrata Copper, the world's fourth largest copper producer.

The open pit ban is contained in the environment code of the province that was approved in June 2010.

"Our environment code is legal, and I am bound to implement that unless nullified by a proper court," Pingoy said.

Two or three weeks ago, the Provincial Board also reiterated that the prohibition on open pit mining will remain, after Justice Secretary Leila de Lima threatened to file cases against local government units (LGUs) with ordinances that supposedly counter Republic Act 7942, or the Philippine Mining Act of 1995.

Manolo Labor, SMI external communications and media relations superintendent, said they were informed Tuesday that Paje has approved the "proposed ECC from DENR."

"Our office in Manila received a signed copy from the Environmental Management Bureau, which issues the ECC," said Labor, who repeatedly referred to the document as "a proposed ECC," claiming the "company has to agree with the government the conditions set therein."

Rey Ondap, head of the Justice and Peace for Integrity of Creation of the Passionist congregation, also slammed the decision of the DENR to issue an ECC to SMI.

"The ECC issuance is the death certificate to the IPs (indigenous peoples) and the people of Davao Region and Soccsksargen. This is the bossy action of PNoy (President Benigno Aquino III) betraying the future generation of this place," Ondap said in a text message.

Lawyer Carlos Zarate, second nominee of Bayan Muna party-list, also condemned the issuance of ECC by the DENR to SMI, noting it shows the utter disregard of the Aquino administration to the sentiments and welfare of the people in South Cotabato and other affected areas.

"That the DENR denied it twice in the past due to the open pit mining ordinance of South Cotabato is proof that this latest move in total turnaround is a brazen surrender of the Aquino administration to the interest of the foreign, large-scale and destructive mining interests. Matuwid na daan is nothing but to satisfy the greed for profit of this administration and its capitalist sponsors," he said.

Zarate, a native of South Cotabato province, noted the ECC "is an insult to the letter and spirit of genuine local autonomy and an insult to the people and local officials of South Cotabato."

In rejecting the application of SMI for an ECC, Paje said in a memorandum dated January 3, 2012: "We are returning herewith the application documents with instruction to deny the same, without prejudice to resubmission, until the issues and concern on the use of open-pit mining method shall have been clarified and resolved by the company [SMI] with the provincial government of South Cotabato."

The company later appealed his decision, but Paje still rejected it.

In a press release Tuesday approving the ECC for the $5.9-billion Tampakan project, Paje said the grant of ECC to SMI was "subject to certain conditions," and failure to comply may result in the cancellation of the ECC.

Paje said an environmental permit was issued to SMI upon the recommendation of the ECC, an agency attached to the DENR that reviewed the ECC application.

According to Paje, the ECC covers the project located in the towns of Tampakan in South Cotabato, Malungon in Sarangani, Columbio in Sultan Kudarat, and Kiblawan in Davao del Sur.

Paje directed the EMB to strictly monitor SMI’s compliance with the conditions stipulated in the ECC to ensure that environmental considerations are incorporated in all phases and aspects of the Tampakan project.

"SMI should make public the feasibility of the project, ensure that the area does not cover those where mining is prohibited, and ensure social acceptability through consultation with stakeholders," Paje said.

He also clarified that SMI could only proceed with the implementation of the project after submitting all other necessary government permits and clearances to the EMB, particularly those involving indigenous peoples, the agriculture and agrarian reform departments, and LGUs.

Under the ECC, SMI is directed to conform to the provisions involving toxic and solid wastes of several laws on clean air and water and mining.

SMI must observe appropriate practices on vegetative restoration, engineering structure, land use, and soil and water management, as well as ensuring proper stockpiling and disposal of generated waste materials and erosion control, the ECC stated.

The mining company is also instructed to protect headwaters, implement an efficient water management system to ensure sustainable use of water, and provide the community with alternative sources of potable water supply, if needed.

Citing provisions of the Philippine Mining Act, the DENR directed the SMI to set up a Multipartite Monitoring Team and submit an Environmental Protection and Enhancement Program that would integrate a final mine rehabilitation and decommissioning plan for when the project is terminated or completed. This includes the setting up of contingent and trust funds that would address future concerns for mine rehabilitation, wastes and tailings, and final decommissioning.

SMI was also told to establish a Mine Environmental Protection and Enhancement Office (MEPEO) that would handle environment-related aspects of the project. The MEPEO is also to monitor the project’s actual impacts vis-à-vis predicted ones.

Additionally, the SMI shall also submit a Social Development and Management Program to the regional Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) and implement it in coordination with affected barangays.

Meanwhile, the regional offices of the EMB and MGB were directed to coordinate with SMI on conducting an information and education campaign on open pit mining, which is the technology to be used for the project.

The 9,605-hectare Tampakan project is expected to produce an average annual yield of 375,000 metric tons of copper and 360,000 ounces of gold per year. (Sun.Star Davao/Sunnex)