Due process respected in mine closures, say DENR execs

Top Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) officials on Sunday belied claims made by the Chamber of Mines against DENR Secretary Gina Lopez during last week’s confirmation hearings that she did not follow due process in the cancellation of 23 mining permits last February.

The Chamber of Mines of the Philippines (COMP) is one of the most vocal oppositors to Lopez’s appointment. Its representative read a statement during last Thursday’s Commission on Appointment (CA) hearing at the Senate, and stated that the DENR Secretary was unfit to lead the environment agency.

DENR Undersecretary Arturo Valdez, who led the first successful Phililppine expedition to Mount Everest in 2006, said that the mining sector is reeling and overreacting to the recent mass cancellations, which has happened to the industry for the first time.

“The audit results were unfavorable to several mining companies, which may have shocked them because they’re not used to an Environment Secretary who stops at nothing and actually is the first one to publicly declare that she will strictly enforce our environmental laws,” Valdez noted.

DENR Undersecretary Maria Paz Luna, engaged in environmental law and policy practice for two decades before joining the department, meanwhile, clarified that DENR followed all due process requirements in the mine cancellations.

“The audits for mines started in July 2016 and it took all of eight months. Sixteen teams went to the field. DENR Regional Directors were in fact assigned to areas not within their jurisdiction. We made sure to have a cross-regional check and balance. There were representatives from civil society and other agencies of government were present in the mine examinations,” Luna stressed.

“The audit was conducted by going to the operations of the mines themselves. The mining companies knew of these audits; they allowed these audits. After tests were conducted by the teams, the DENR sent the companies the audit reports,” explained Luna.

Luna said that the affected mining firms were given an opportunity to respond to the findings of the DENR.

“From those responses, the Secretary made her own assessment and came out with a decision which is her discretion to do,” said the lawyer.

Lopez informed CA members that as DENR Secretary, she was bound to comply with due process in the cancellation of mine operations and that she performed her duties with social justice, the common good, the general welfare, and passion for protecting, preserving and promoting the environment in mind.

The COMP accused Lopez of bias, which the group said prevented the Secretary from appreciating the mechanics of the Mining Act.

Undersecretary Luna countered by stressing that “there’s no one else who can enforce our environmental laws without fear or favor as much as Sec. Gina Lopez can."

“Someone with integrity and with political backing from the President can finally do what this country has been waiting for in a long time, and that’s the enforcement of our environmental laws.”

Luna further branded as patently untrue the various oppositors’ claims that there was no transparency in the DENR audit results.

“The technical review reports have been posted online. People can also go to the office and request for access to the information that we have under our Freedom of Information policy at the DENR. The technical review committee results and the closure orders are all for the public to see. There’s nothing to hide.” ### 

Lopez to CA: 'I'm not only about mining'

Secretary Gina Lopez assured members of the Commission on Appointments (CA) that her focus is not only on mining, but also on other areas of environmental protection and sustainable development that are within the mandate of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

Lopez said her "controversial" decisions against erring mining companies are just among the many things she did in over half a year she has been in the DENR.

"I'm not only about mining," Lopez told CA members during her confirmation hearing on Wednesday.

Among her string of accomplishments are the closure of 50 illegal quarrying operations in Mt. Banahaw, dismantling of illegal structures in Laguna Lake, stoppage of ash spill in Bataan province, and intensified operations in so-called "illegal logging hotspots" in the country which resulted in the confiscation of massive quantities of illegally cut timber and filing of charges against illegal loggers.

Lopez said she also started her campaign to rid the DENR of corrupt officials and employees. "I have adopted a policy of one-strike out. I have zero tolerance for corruption."

The DENR chief also shared to CA members her plan to create ecological economic zones to help move local communities out of poverty in record time.

"I am confident that we can get our country out of poverty. I feel that genuine economic growth is genuine when it brings on social justice," Lopez said in her opening statement.

She added: "The stand in DENR to bring social justice is what I'm going to call area development -- looking at the area, looking at its potential and the magnificence, and maneuver it so that the resources benefit the people living there.

"It is to this end that I'm committing my full commitment to make this a reality."

Lopez said her extensive experience in building ecological economic sites will help her in providing sustainable livelihood to local communities without destroying the environment.

"I have had the experience of building models which worked and that is where I wanna go," Lopez said.

"These models have resulted in communities that we call ecological economic, educational zones and that is exactly I wanna go in DENR -- to build models and to build many models which show that we can do it and we can make it happen," she added.

Responding to questions from CA members, Lopez defended her decision to close down 23 mining operations due to serious environmental violations and to scrap 75 mineral production sharing agreements or MPSAs with mining companies in watershed areas.

"In watersheds, the water goes down to feed agriculture which benefits people living there. If you mine in a watershed, you invariably hit the water table that supports life in the area," Lopez pointed out.

She also said that it is within her mandate as DENR secretary to declare no mining in watershed areas. "I'm just following the law (Philippine Mining Act of 1995)," she pointed out.

Lopez also warned of repercussions of open pit mining, which mining companies could do if they are allowed to operate in watersheds.

"Open pit mining is illegal and makes soil acidic," Lopez said. # 

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