These are Japanese-owned and also Filipino owned nickel and cobalt mining and processing plants in Palawan very possibly causing grave danger to human health and irreversible damage to biodiversity.
Rio Tuba is designed to produce 10,000 dry metric tons of nickel to be recovered per year from low grade ore coming from Rio Tuba’s open pit mining activity. Its nickel output will be exported to Japan. However, a massive amount of sulfuric acid, a highly toxic chemical used to produce nickel and other toxic chemical substances will be imported from Japan at the rate of 270,000 metric tons annually or 5.4 million metric tons in 20 years. In Coral Bay (the sister factory) imports of sulphuric acid were estimated at 600,000 tons in 2014. Coral Bay operated in 2007 at a capacity of 24,000 tonnes of contained nickel and 1,500 tonnes of contained cobalt per year in the form of a mixed nickel-cobalt sulphide containing approximately 57% nickel and 4% cobalt, which is sold exclusively to Sumitomo for refining at its Nihama Nickel Refinery. The plant applies the high-pressure acid leach (HPAL) process under license from SMM. The process uses sulphuric acid in high temperature, high-pressure autoclave vessels to leach nickel and cobalt from low-grade lateritic nickel ore. In the HPAL process, limonite ore is processed into a mixed nickel-cobalt sulphide.
Apart from chemical risks to health, the large open pit nickel mines are wiping out old growth forests, precious and endangered plants and animals.
The Rio Tuba Nickel Mining Corporation, a firm that have been operating on the island since almost thirty years, became the centre of major controversy in 2002. After a contentious past regarding its poor environmental performance, the company was granted in July 2002 an Environmental Compliance Certificate to expand its mining activities. The legal battle among representatives of the firm and NGOs, which were actively advocating the interests of the native population, finally resulted in a rally, attracting around 1000 demonstrators of the municipality Bataraza. This social dissatisfaction is not only as a result of the expectations of the native population being let down in the past by the company, especially those of the south-palawenos and some well-informed urban residents, but is also directed towards the environmental bureaucracies, even to the level of the central government. (Alexander Perez Carmona, 2005) (3).
In 2009 it was reported by the CBCD/ALDAW mission that the continuation of mining activities in Bulanjao mountain will irremediably damage the best conserved forest in the southern tip of Palawan, with predictable adverse consequences for the food production capacity of both indigenous Palawan and migrant farmers communities living at the foot of this mountain range. Because of mining activities taking place at high elevations, the risk of landslides is likely to increase to an unprecedented level. Also the eco-tourism potential of this mountain forest is likely to be jeopardized. Furthermore, some of the areas - around and inside the Bulanjao range include sacred and worship sites that are regarded by the local indigenous people as physical evidence of mythological events and are associated with important cosmological principles. The local inhabitants perceive the destruction of these historical and natural landmarks as an obliteration of their history and collective memories of the past. It was recommended that RTNMC (Rio Tuba) and CBNC (Coral Bay) should cease all mining related activities in Bulanjao. They should further comply with the provisions of the Mining Code, which ban mining development from key environmental zones and ancestral lands of indigenous peoples, and with the main tenets of the IPRA law (Indigenous Peoples Rights Act). They should rehabilitate with endemic species all damaged and eroded sites found in the Bulanjao range. (1)
In 2012, it was reported that according to the Friends of the Earth Japan (FoE-Japan) and the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE), nickel mining operations in Palawan Island is to blame for the contamination of the Palawan river system. They said the river is already poisoned with unsafe levels of carcinogenic or cancer-causing chemicals. During a press conference in Quezon City, the groups presented findings from an environmental field study conducted downstream near the Rio Tuba Nickel Mining Corporation’s (RTNMC) mining operations and the Coral Bay Nickel Processing Plant’s operation.(5) The study, which started in 2009, analyzed water samples and revealed that present levels of hexavalent chromium (Cr-VI), a toxic and carcinogenic chemical, had already exceeded safe levels in the Togupon River. A researcher from FoE-Japan Hozue Hatae said the water contamination originated either from upstream mining or refinery operations. Togupon River runs through the area where the nickel mining operations of RTNMC and the nickel processing facility of Coral Bay Nickel Corp. (CBNC) are located. Both projects are financed and pursued in partnership with Japanese multinational corporations and institutions, such as the Japan Bank for International Cooperation and the Nippon Export and Investment Insurance.
In August 15, 2015 it was reported that the plan to expand operations in untouched virgin forest areas of southern Palawan has sparked a heated exchange in Puerto Princesa between local officials, led by Governor Jose Chavez Alvarez, and environmental groups opposed to mining in the province. Alvarez, who was presiding over a meeting on Thursday of the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD) to discuss the proposed expansion of Rio Tuba Nickel Mining Corp. into Mount Bolanjao in Bataraza, objected to a position paper submitted by environmental group Palawan NGO Network Inc. (PNNI) and challenged its head, lawyer Robert Chan, to a fistfight. Chan, executive director of PNNI, had written the PCSD objecting to the reclassification of areas covered by the mining expansion plan. The letter, Alvarez claimed, was disrespectful to the PCSD. Environmental groups had questioned the PCSD’s issuance of a clearance to the mining project and a separate clearance to a plan to build a coal power plant in the province. Alvarez accused PNNI of “unfairly blaming” the PCSD secretariat. (4) Civil society groups, reacting to the governor’s outburst, have demanded that he apologize.(4).
In 2016 Secretary of the DENR Gina Lopez inspected the Rio Tuba mine. There was much rejoicing shortly afterwards among the mining firms when she was not confirmed to the post after a parliamentary hearing where mining interest imposed their rule. In this same year 2016, FoE Japan had again issued a statement on water quality :"Friends of the Earth Japan (FoE Japan), with the cooperation of a Japanese citizen’s expert, has been continuously analyzing the water quality in the communities surrounding the Coral Bay Nickel Processing Plant Project (the CBNP) and the Rio Tuba Nickel Mining Project (the RTNMP), in the municipality of Bataraza, Palawan, since 2009. Our findings of water quality analysis for these 7 years have clearly shown that Hexavalent Chromium or Cr (VI) in the Togupon River in this area has been exceeding “Environmental Quality Standards Concerning the Protection of the Human Health” (not exceeding 0.05 mg/L) in Japan at almost all the time in every rainy season . Based on this situation that the water contamination hasn’t been improved yet, FoE Japan submitted a petition to Sumitomo Metal Mining Co., Ltd. (SMM), calling on the joint Investigation regarding water quality and effective mitigation measure against water contamination, from the viewpoint of preventing the long-term health damage and ensuring the security and life of the local people in the future.(2)
FoE Japan insisted that it has not been possible collect yet any water samples inside of the project site. The project proponents haven’t yet provided any clear answer about the haxavalent chromium in the Togupon River, either. While FoE Japan will continue its water analysis in the communities surrounding the nickel project site in Palawan, it is also recommended that the Japanese companies concerned make more cooperation and take more active measure, such as the identification of the water contamination mechanism and the information disclosure, from the viewpoint of preventing the long-term health damage and ensuring the security and life of the local people in the future.