POSTSCRIPT / August 22, 2002 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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UN airs warning on Asian Brown Cloud

BLANKET OF DEATH: It’s official. The bogey raised by environmentalist groups a couple of years ago is now confirmed in a newly released report by the UN Environmental Program.

Klaus Teopfer, UNEP executive director, said at the recent launch of the report in Paris: “Its now absolutely clear that we have a very, very dangerous increase of particulates, especially in the Asian region.”

The UNEP report is based on the observations of over 200 international scientists and the first detailed assessment of the effects of what’s now called the “Asian Brown Cloud.” The phenomenon is a 3-kilometer thick blanket of pollution created by the burning of wood, dung, coal and dirty fuel for vehicles and power stations.

The most studied of the brown clouds is a huge one hovering over the Indian Ocean almost a thousand kilometers from the cities producing the foul air. Pollution is no longer a localized problem but one that can have far-reaching effects beyond the immediate confines of a pollution source.

This vast cloud of pollutants is already threatening agricultural output, altering rainfall patterns and damaging human health.

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MERCURY IN THE AIR: One doesn’t have to look as far as the Indian Ocean to see the ill effects of pollution. Electric plants of the National Power Corp. and a number of independent power producers (IPPs) have close to 3,600 megawatts of coal-fired plants supplying 45 percent of the electricity demand on Luzon.

The harm these plants have inflicted on their host communities is well documented by the UK-based environmental group Greenpeace International. Coal ash fallout from the Calaca power plants in Batangas analyzed by a Dr. Anthony Millan of the PIPAC chemical analysis laboratories of the Ateneo has been found positive for deadly mercury.

In addition, sources from barangay Baclaran outside the Calaca power plant of Napocor said that over the last five years they have had at least nine deaths from lung cancer, and more than 20 cases of pulmonary tuberculosis and dozens more cases of asthma and other respiratory diseases reported to the municipal health center each month. All these in just one barangay!

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PROTEST MASS ACTION: Environment-conscious legislators like senators Loren Legarda-Leviste, Robert Jaworski and Miguel Zubiri, as well as Rep. Etta Rosales, have called for the shutdown of some, if not all, of the dirty coal plants.

Most of these plants are not even compliant with our Clean Air Act. Despite the high-profile passage of the law, government has delayed its implementation. Is government saying that the health and well-being of the citizenry can wait?

In the meantime we suffer slow death inhaling the most polluted air in the world. Right in the nation’s capital, thousands of commuters are exposed daily to deadly fumes. Innocent children are stricken and disadvantaged for life with their parents unable to do anything about it. The mass poisoning is so blatant, but nobody seems to care.

Workers in Metro Manila and communities stuck with coal plants should stage a mass strike until the government takes positive steps to address the problem. Officers should refuse traffic duty unless there is pollution abatement. Students should stay home. We’ve got to do something drastic together, even to the extent of paralyzing the capital, to force the hand of the government.

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BUT IT’S CHEAP DAW!: Napocor’s lame reaction to growing public clamor to shut down their polluting coal plants was a big public-be-damned No! Insisting that because coal-based power is cheap, they just won’t give up coal.

By its inaction, the government seems to agree that public health and welfare are low priority concerns. The jokers at Napocor must be out of their minds to say that the protest against pollution is the handiwork of sinister forces targeting particular coal plants.

Just recently, they were saying that we had an overcapacity of power. Now they refuse to close some plants that are a clear threat to the public health despite the power surplus.

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P1.5-B BONANZA: The million-dollar question is Why? Some Napocor insiders bothered by conscience have long been talking about the games being played in the procurement of coal for its captive clients among the power plants.

They will deny it, but the purchasing of coal has long been controlled by a mafia. Records show that roughly 7 million metric tons of coal is imported each year for use in its plants and that of its IPPs. (The IPPs cannot buy coal except through Napocor. Ang tindi, ano po?)

At current world prices, that’s almost P10.5 billion in yearly coal purchases. At 10-percent commission, that’s a whopping P1.5-bilion bonanza just on coal purchases.

The mafia reportedly rakes in more money by passing off cheaper substandard coal as first-quality and collecting payment based on the better variety. They probably assume that anyway nobody, including the auditors, would know the difference after the coal is burned in government-controlled plants such as those in Masinloc and Calaca.

The P1.5-billion bonanza is so seductive that we can’t help wondering who in Napocor, the Department of Energy, and somewhere junto al Pasig can resist the temptation of dipping his sticky finger into it.

Some insiders tell us this is one of the reasons why the privatization of Napocor will take a long long time to happen. The picking in Napocor’s coal yard is just too good to give up!

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ET TU, VINCENTE?: When we first met Energy Secretary Vince Perez during the US working visit of President Arroyo last November, we thought here was one man who would do something about the Napocor mess. We’re still watching, and thinking.

Perez carries the right credentials and sits on the board of the Philippine chapter of the World Wide Fund for Nature. Recent press releases have shown him signing agreements espousing the virtues of clean, renewable energy.

He reportedly will be spending lots of taxpayers’ dwindling dollars on a whirlwind tour of Europe in the coming months to sell the Philippines as an investment site for renewable energy.

He better be advised that the environmentalist community can smell any attempt at “greenwash” from a mile away. It’s in vogue now given the many leaders wishing to hide their environmental skeletons before the Johannesburg (Rio+10) summit at the end of the month.

Before he packs his bags, Perez may want to improve his credentials by first retiring some of those offensive coal plants. Unless of course, he is not really in charge or has lost his innocence on his way to his first coal plant.

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BATANGAS VICTIMS: In Balayan town in Batangas, meanwhile, the specter of lung cancer has descended on the residents of barangay Baclaran as a result of toxic emissions from nearby Calaca 1 and Calaca 2, both 300-megawatt coal-fired plants.

Data from the barangay health center showed nine deaths attributed to cancer of the lungs and 19 cases of pulmonary tuberculosis in varying degrees of medical treatment.

The lung cancer victims were identified as Apolinario Cantos, Teodoro Suwelos, Guillermo Costanero (March 30, 1997), Ernesto Gatdula, Carina Magahis (1997), Gregorio Esguerra, Petronila Caisip (2000), Delfin Banaag (2002), and Petronila Banaag (2001).

The PTB patients gave their names as Armando de Castro (cured), Winceslao Balboa (under medication), Maribel Caisip (under medication), Felicidad Balboa (cured), Nicanor de Castro (cured), Bernardo Castillo (cured), Clemencia Balboa (cured), Jaime Andal (under medication), Ana Caisip (under medication), Casiana Paris (under medication), Vicente Ramos (cured), Leonor Gatdula (under medication), Benjamin de Castro (cured), Henry Salva (under medication), Valentino Balboa (under medication), Amading Balboa (under medication), Wilbert Balboa (under medication), Mario Caisip (relapsed), Maribel Castro (status not indicated).

There was no conclusive official report linking the medical cases and the coal plants, but independent studies have shown that such possible relation exists.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of August 22, 2002)

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