POSTSCRIPT / May 30, 2006 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Bishop vs technical man in Lafayette mining row

EXPERT TALKS: Who are you likely to believe between a bishop and a mining expert who have conflicting conclusions about commercial mining operations in Rapu Rapu, Albay?

The prelate is Bishop Arturo Bastes of Sorsogon and the technical man is Greg Tabuena, a forester with extensive mining experience who has been involved in environmental protection projects of big mining companies.

The two, with seven other individuals from various fields, were appointed to a commission tasked by President Gloria Arroyo to look into the two spills last October in the Lafayette polymetal operations in Rapu Rapu. Bastes is the commission chairman.

It turned out that Tabuena, who has the most mining experience in the group, has submitted a dissenting opinion as postscript to the report submitted May 19 to President Arroyo by the Bastes Commission.

There is now a clamor among Bicol officials and members of the mining community for a fair and full airing of the Tabuena dissenting report filed May 26 with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

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DISSENTING OPINION: It seems that even Malacanang was not informed that the Bastes commission report was not unanimous.

During a media briefing on May 19, commission vice chairman Charlie Avila said when asked that no one had dissented — until the microphone was passed to Tabuena who then told the audience that he did not sign the report and would issue a dissenting report.

Tabuena said he could not write his own report early enough for the media briefing, because he was denied access to the data and documents culled by the commission during its hearings.

This had resulted in a commission report loaded with anti-mining bias some of which was attributed to the bishop-chairman. Lafayette had to say, when asked for comment, that the report was unscientific, flawed and biased.

Lafayatte cited scientific and laboratory findings that were ignored while theories and subjective terms like “feel” and “probably” found their way into the report.

For instance, the report insisted that Lafayette “probably” caused a mercury contamination of Sorsogon’s coastal waters. This it insisted despite several scientific tests and findings by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources and the UP National Science Research Institute to the contrary.

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DISTORTION: Bastes reportedly refused to accept doctors’ testimony, supported by scientific tests, that the skin disease of a child whose solitary case was brought forward was caused by bacterial infection as a result of poor hygiene and malnutrition.

Instead, the Bastes report said the skin problem could have been caused by what it called “the theory of the weakening immune system” caused probably by something called hexavelent chromite.

Lafayette said it does not produce this chemical and neither does it use mercury, which the commission also said was the cause of the contamination in the shore areas in Sorsogon across the bay from Rapu Rapu in Albay.

The company asked why, if indeed the illness was caused by contamination of the bay, only one child was affected. Sorsogon officials complained that when the child was shown on TV, there was distorted magnification of his case that they said had no scientific basis.

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TRIGGER PRICES: It says here that the Department of Energy has set the trigger prices for lowering the tariff on imported crude and finished oil products from the present three percent to all the way to zero percent when warranted.

The trigger prices are part of the guidelines for carrying out Executive Order 527 meant to cushion the economic impact of rising oil prices on fuel consumers. Based on the guidelines:

  • The tariff is lowered to two percent if the average prices of both Dubai crude and Mean of Platts Singapore (MOPS)-based diesel over the last two weeks reach $66 per barrel and $88 per barrel, respectively.
  • A one-percent tariff rate is imposed if the average prices of both Dubai crude and MOPS-based diesel over the last two weeks reach $75 per barrel and $88 per barrel, respectively.
  • A zero-percent tariff rate is levied if the average prices for both Dubai crude and MOPS-based diesel over the last two weeks reach $85 per barrel and $88 barrel, respectively.

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REAL GAINERS: The guidelines also require oil companies to reduce pump prices of diesel sold to the public transport sector. Oil firms were asked to maintain enough gasoline stations dispensing the discounted diesel.

Questions: If the tariff is reduced for crude oil — all of which is later refined into gasoline, diesel and other petroleum products — how come only the pump price of diesel, and only for public transport vehicles, is reduced?

Will the oil refiners keep the pro-rated savings derived from the tariff cuts pertaining to gasoline and other non-diesel products? Was EO 527 designed to fatten further the oil refiners that already netted (not grossed) P11.8 billion in after-tax profits last year?

When EO 527 guidelines were being discussed in the Department of Finance, Bureau of Customs, Department of Trade and Industry, and the National Economic and Development Authority, nobody spoke for the poor consumers?

The two refiners’ combined P11.8-billion net profit came from a whopping P5.54 billion increase from their P6.26 billion net profit in 2004.

The country has only two oil refiners left — Pilipinas Shell Petroleum Corp. and Petron Corp. — after Caltex dismantled its refinery in Batangas. Petron holds some 34 percent of the market. Shell’s share is 33 percent.

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PPI SIDE: Alfredo J. Non, president of Pacific Plans Inc., told Postscript yesterday that the pre-need firm was happy over the donation of former Manila congressman Mark Jimenez to a fund to help parents of educational planholders.

Jimenez had announced that he was giving from his personal funds P20 million to help the poor among the distressed PPI planholders. He said he would add P30 million to cover also those of College Assurance Plan, another pre-need firm in financial trouble.

“The donation of Mr. Jimenez can help augment the tuition support that PPI will distribute to its planholders,” Non said.

He added that before the 2005-2006 school year, PPI had paid in full the tuition of all its open-ended planholders numbering 58,000 at a cost of about P7.5 billion. (“Open-ended” means the tuition to be paid is not a fixed amount but is whatever is current upon enrolment. — fdp)

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REHAB PLAN: In a letter to us, Non said: “Our illiquidity has forced us to seek rehabilitation from the Makati court which was granted recently. Despite our financial constraints, and unlike other pre-need companies in similar situation, PPI gave out P591 million in tuition support for the 2005-2006 SY which was availed of by 16,000 open-ended planholders.

“Even our lead critics, Mr. Philip Piccio, Ms. Wenina Bonifacio and Mr. Freddy de la Cruz got tuition support from the company. This was in the PhilSTAR news last May 27.”

Re the recent decision of Makati RTC Judge (now Court of Appeals justice) Romeo Barza laying down a plan to pay planholders while rehabilitating PPI, Non said “we are just waiting for the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas’ approval to release the funds for this school year which we hope to get and distribute first week of June 2006.”

Word is being awaited, meanwhile, from similarly affected planholders of CAP, who are reportedly more numerous than those of PPI, as to what concerted action they plan to take.

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LIBEL SUIT: On the libel suits filed against Piccio and other critics of PPI and the Yuchengco business group, lawyer Jessie John P. Gimenez clarified that it was him and not PPI itself that filed the complaints November last year on behalf of the companies under the Yuchengco group and their various stakeholders.

Gimenez said the “incessant and slanderous campaign of our detractors on their web site started April last year, and we kept silent in the hope that they would understand PPI’s concern to save their planholders through a rehabilitation petition, which PPI filed early on before the Makati regional trial court which it recently approved.”

He said the criminal case filed earlier by Piccio against PPI officers and directors was welcome since this would give the respondents a chance to clear their names and settle the issue expeditiously.

“In the same vein, our critics should also welcome our libel suits against them as the proper venue to air their defenses,” he added. “The courts are the right venue to seek redress.”

He lamented that PPI’s detractors have “waged a campaign of hatred, and engaged in a trial by publicity using the media at every turn,” forcing him on behalf of the distressed firms to file libel charges.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of May 30, 2006)

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