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Hexavalent chromium —a highly toxic carcinogenic compound made famous by the movie, Erin Brokovich— has reared its ugly head in a big way in Mindanao.
But first, a primer: hexavalent chromium is a chemical compound formerly used in dyes, paints, inks and plastics. Its high toxicity can damage the skin, and inhalation can lead to lung cancer and ingestion may cause ulcer, and damage on intestines.
This inorganic compound is also a contaminant, damaging rivers, streams, and potable water.
International standards allow up to 0.05 mg/L of hexavalent chromium in rivers. But mining operations in Surigao have bumped up the chemical's presence to as much as 140 mg/L —almost 3,000 times the internationally accepted limit.
Rivers brown with pollution
Port Hayanggabon in Surigao del Norte is the jump-off point to the surfing capital of the Philippines, Siargao Island.
When the weather is fair, driving along the roads of Claver —from Brgy. Taganito to Hayanggabon— would mean letting your car be enveloped with a thick blanket of dust, to the inconvenience of tourists going to the other island.
Roel Catoto, a community journalist in the province said in a phone interview, “The water is contaminated, as well as the air.”
Claver Bay, the area fronting Port Hayanggabon, is one of the area's “tourist attractions” —less for its picturesque scenery than for its brownish color.
The rivers —Hayanggabon and Taganito— streaming into the mining town are now dubbed the “Chocolate Rivers,” much to the dismay of the locals.
And recently, Japan-based environment advocacy group Friends of the Earth (FoE) published a study saying that water in Claver is heavily contaminated with hexavalent chromium.
“Makikita mo agad ‘yung contamination at ‘yung mining sites. Malaking area ‘yung affected,” said Catoto. Failed to meet Japanese standards
The study said that the hexavalent chromium content of the Hayanggabon and Taganito Rivers exceeded even Japan's own highly stringent environmental standards.
The results FoE published showed that the range of chromium concentrate in the waters of the Hayanggabon and Taganito Rivers during the tests in May 2012 is from 0.027 mg/L to 140 mg/L.
The test was done first by physical examination, and then via a more precise Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer (ICP-MS) test in Japan.
View Points in a larger map
Junichi Onuma of Japan's Kinjo-gakuin University, said in the FoE statement, “It is very important that the contamination of hexavalent chromium has been found surrounding the Taganito nickel mining site in Claver, Surigao del Norte. For the fact could increase the possibility of the general principle that the mining exploitation working of laterite peculiar to the tropical region inevitably brings about the contamination of hexavalent chromium anywhere…” Area larger than Las Piñas
The Taganito Mining Corporation (TMC) is the owner of the project in Claver. Nickel Asia, the largest nickel mining company in the Philippines, owns 65 percent of TMC.
The Taganito Mining Project started in 1987 and is set to end in 2037. At 4,632 ha., the project is larger than the entire city of Las Piñas in Manila (which only has an area of 4,154 ha.).
The study also said that the drinking water from the local communities surrounding the mining site was also found to be contaminated with hexavalent chromium, exceeding the Japanese Water Supply Act's and the World Health Organization's Guidelines for drinking water quality of a maximum of 0.05 mg/L. Indigenous peoples: defenseless, unprotected
Catoto said that the indigenous Mamanwas, who live in communities surrounding the mining site, are the most affected by the contamination by hexovalent chromium.
But, sadly, these natives don't have the resources to stop the damage.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the "best available technologies" for removal of chromium in water are coagulation or filtration, lime softening, and reverse osmosis —all of which are only available in large-scale treatment plants.
In the Philippines, the first large-scale reverse osmosis and microfiltration plant was established in Putatan River in Muntinlupa City. The plant cost P1.4 billion to set up.
New Jersey Institute of Technology professor and environmental engineer Taha Marhaba said in a statement, “The best way to remove this and other known and unknown contaminants from the water supply to a residence is to install a five-stage reverse osmosis home unit. They cost about $300 (P12,000).”
As of posting time, Taganito Mining Corp has yet to air its side of the issue.
View Points in a larger map
Surigao del Norte is not the only site of heavy hexavalent chromium contamination: there's also Bataraza at the southernmost tip of Palawan, five to six hours drive from Puerto Princesa City.
Aside from being the home to the largest pearl in the world, the “Pearl of Allah,” recovered by a Filipino diver in 1934 in the Palawan Sea, Bataraza is also home to the Rio Tuba Nickel Mining Corporation and the Coral Bay Nickel Corporation —a mining consortium started in 1975.
According to the FoE study, Togubon River in southern Palawan contains 0.002 mg/L to 0.128 mg/L of hexavalent chromium.
In previous FoE researches, Togubon River always exceeded Japanese environmental standards.
Onuma said that in the latest sampling done in April 2012, less hexavalent chromium was found on the river.
In a phone interview with a Coral Bay Nickel Corp communication officer, he said, “There is no contamination on our end. We are doing more than enough to prevent water contamination.”
The study said that Togubon River flows down the Rio Tuba mining site, a 990 ha-nickel mining area. The overflowing water from the dams for the Coral Bay Nickel processing plants flows into the said river.
The study also warned that immediate measures should be taken in order to mitigate the pollution.
Nickel mining in the Philippines
Currently, there are 21 nickel mining projects in operation in the country, according to the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB).
The MGB data also said that, for the months of January to June of 2012, TMC acquired a total of more than 303,000 dry metric tons (with 1 percent iron, excluding moisture) of nickel ore which is valued at more than P805 million, or at least 4.7 percent of the total value of nickel mined in the country during the same period.
Meanwhile, the Rio Tuba Mining Project mined a total of more than 722,000 dry metric tons of nickel ore which is valued at around P1.5 billion, excluding those sold to smeltering company Coral Bay Nickel Mining Corp. This represents around 8.9 percent of the total value of nickel mined during the same period. — TJD, GMA News