POSTSCRIPT / November 7, 2002 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Can we shake off this feeling of despondency?

CREEPING DARKNESS: What has come over us? Wherever we go and ask people how they feel about the situation (the economy, peace and order, everything…) we sense a creeping despondency, a crushing feeling that things are likely to turn worse than better.

The widespread feeling pertaining to local issues is that of insecurity and inadequacy. Many people say they do not feel safe enough. Many of them also lament that they do not earn enough for their reasonable needs.

We love to brag that the Filipino can endure anything. But when we strain and still do not see a turnaround in the near future, when we do not catch the faintest glimmer in the horizon, some of us may just start resorting to extraordinary measures lest they be swallowed by the creeping darkness.

We do not have statistics to validate this qualitative finding of ours, but then government figures seem to have become irrelevant at this point. The validation will probably have to be made by each one of us, each to his own situation.

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THE DARK SIDE: Walking in light but drowning in the dark, fine dusts of disease and death.

This is the immutable irony of coal-generated electricity, and Mirant Philippines Corp. — the country’s largest independent power producer (IPP) — does not talk about the “dark side of the force.”

A recent Mirant ad featuring “Juan in wonderland,” an image of a child caught in the fantasy world of book reading, said: “Children who have literally been kept in the dark can finally travel to faraway lands even at night as Project BEACON (Barangay Electrification Assistance for Countryside Development) completes the electrification of 1,000 barangays nationwide. It’s the beginning of new life for these Filipino children. With electricity, they now have the power to change their lives and join the mainstream of Philippine development.”

That is, the ad failed to say, if the child could live old enough and survive the onslaught of mercury, a known human neurotoxin, and other horrible substances emitted by coal-fired power plants such as those operated by Mirant.

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OTHER SIDE OF BEACON: The Mirant ad describes Project BEACON as “the largest corporate social responsibility program ever carried out by a single private corporation in the country.”

It says that the project, which is being implemented by Mirant Philippines Foundation (the social development arm of Mirant Philippines), supports the O-Ilaw Program of the Department of Energy.”

But for all its altruistic intentions, maybe Mirant could have put up instead pulmonary/respiratory facilities in its host communities considering the toxic and carcinogenic emissions its coal plants unleash through their smokestacks.

Green lawmakers and environmental watchdog have called for the shutdown of all local coal plants precisely because of these “toxins and carcinogens.”

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MIRANT SAYS IT’S CLEAN: Two House committees have endorsed a resolution urging the National Power Corp. (Napocor) to shut down half a dozen coal-fired plants for polluting the environment.

In endorsing House Resolution 700, the committees on energy and ecology gave weight to statements of the measure’s principal sponsor, Rep. Juan Miguel Zubiri of Bukidnon, and the testimony of environmental experts on the poisonous substances discharged by coal plants.

The Senate has also endorsed the shift from fossil-fuel sources of power to “clean and renewable energy.”

Still, Mirant affirms that it has been complying with the Clean Air Act and boasts of an International Standards Organization certification on its local coal-fired plants.

Operating seven power plants in the country with a combined capacity of about 2,000 megawatts, Mirant is the runaway top profit-maker (P12 billion last year!) among the 40 or so IPPs in the Napocor grid.

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TOP IPP EARNER: Students of business would find Mirant an interesting case study. We understand that the firm gets a fixed fee for operating its plants (in the same manner a lawyer gets a fee just for being retained, even without handling any case for the client)) and then also gets paid for power that it makes available to the grid (in the same manner that the retained lawyer also charges a separate fee for every case handled).

Mirant’s Pagbilao power station manager Tommy Sliman said the company’s 700-mw facility in Quezon recently bagged the recommendation of the Geneva-based Societe Generale de Surveillance for ISO 14,001 accreditation.

Robert Walker, station manager of Mirant’s 1,200-mw Sual coal-fired plant, announced earlier that the facility based in Pangasinan got a similar ISO rating.

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DISMAL RECORD IN U.S.: But statements of Mirant’s local executives do not ring loud and clear when heard alongside the record of its coal-fired plants in the US — which has stricter emissions laws. These are Mirant’s US-based plants and their emission records as of 1999:

  • Its 1,492-mw coal/oil-fired Morgantown generating plant in Charles Country, Maryland, emitted 335 pounds of mercury that year.
  • Its 853-mw Dickerson coal/gas/oil-fired generating plant in Montgomery County, also in Maryland, spewed out 285 pounds of mercury in the same year.
  • Its 2,429-mw coal/oil-fired Chalk Point Generating Plant in Prince George’s County scored 344 lbs. of mercury.
  • The 411-mw Lovett generating plant in Tomkins Cove, New York had 35lbs. of mercury;
  • The 482-mw coal/oil-fired Potomac River generating plant in Alexandria, Virginia emitted 72 lbs. of mercury.
  • The 119-mw coal-fired Birchwood generating plant in Fredericksburg, Virginia spewed 0.00143 tons.

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SCOURGE OF MERCURY: The figures were developed by the Environmental Working Group based on data submitted to the US Environmental Protection Agency by American power companies.

The pollution amounts listed include only mercury emitted through smokestacks directly into the air.

Mercury is a naturally occurring element that makes its way into the environment when oil-and coal-fired power plants burn those fossil fuels.

Mercury in the air can be wafted 1,000 kilometers. It is extremely toxic. Exposure to mercury can cause severe brain damage in fetuses, tremors, mental disorders, and even death.

Heavy exposure to mercury can damage the nervous system, especially the brain. Too much of it among pregnant and breast-feeding women, or those who may become pregnant, can hurt their babies. The element adversely affects children’s intelligence, coordination, and memory.

Napocor depends on coal-fired power plants for 40 percent of the country’s energy requirements, importing up to P10 billion worth of coal annually. It has admitted that 99.5 percent of the mercury in coal is released through the smokestack during combustion.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of November 7, 2002)

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