POSTSCRIPT / October 25, 2015 / Sunday


Opinion Columnist

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Haze hits VisMin, but DENR looks elsewhere

WHILE the haze from uncontrolled forest fires in Indonesia has started to disrupt life in Mindanao and the Visayas, Philippine environment officials appear more concerned with ensuring that a favored supplier corner the deal for air pollution monitoring equipment.

The smoke from the two-month-old fires set off by slash-and-burn farmers has blanketed nearby areas, including Malaysia and Singapore. It has reached southern Philippines, where it disrupts air traffic and prompts warnings for residents to wear face masks.

As we write this, however, no word has been heard from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, where officials seem to be engrossed with ensuring that a favored firm get the supply contract for air pollution monitoring equipment.

A spokesman of the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines said Friday, meanwhile, that the haze has also affected Cebu and Negros. The resulting poor visibility since Oct. 16, he added, had caused cancellations or delays of several domestic flights.

The uncertainty of aircraft movements to and from local airports affected by the haze has contributed to the foul-up of flight schedules in Manila terminals.

Malaysia has repeatedly ordered schools closed in several states. The air quality around the capital Kuala Lumpur itself has been declared “very unhealthy” under the government’s rating system, with the air in much of the rest of the country rated as “unhealthy”.

In Singapore, air quality was also in the “unhealthy” range with appropriate precautionary advice broadcast daily.

■ No real time monitoring in Metro Manila

IN METRO Manila where an expensive network of monitoring devices had been installed by the DENR, there is no published daily rating of the air quality. Some of the monitors have reportedly conked out because of poor maintenance.

The air pollution readings of devices that still work are saved in a file server at the DENR’s Environmental Monitoring Bureau. But there is no real-time daily publishing of the pollution level. We are wont to ask what for is the monitoring system?

Wire reports have it that “much of the burning in Indonesia is in peatlands, drained and cleared by farmers illegally, and at a rapid rate, to make way for agriculture and in particular fast-expanding palm oil plantations.”

The nearest equivalent practice in the Philippines is the “kaingin” system where farmers cut or burn trees and bushes to clear unirrigated land for seasonal crops. The burned area is not reforested, as kaingineros move to other areas to burn.

As the regional emergency worsened, Indonesia asked several countries, including Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and Russia, for aid, equipment and personnel to put out the rampaging fires.

A report of the World Resources Institute said that since last month, carbon emissions from the fires had exceeded average US daily output. The US is the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas source after China, while Indonesia is classified as fifth-largest emitter.

The WRI said: “The burning of tropical peatlands is so significant for greenhouse gas emissions, because these areas store some of the highest quantities of carbon on Earth, accumulated over thousands of years.”

■ DENR execs engrossed with something else

BUT THE RAGING fires in the neighborhood seem to be of no concern to the politicians and operators riding high in the DENR.

Even the worsening air pollution, marked by the rise in the level of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) on EDSA cutting through the national capital, has not affected the DENR’s Environmental Monitoring Bureau.

Insiders at the EMB tell us that what they call the “mafia” in the Air Quality Monitoring Section has ignored negative reports on the system that they had bought to measure and publish real-time air pollution levels in Metro Manila

On the contrary, preparations have been rushed reportedly for the procurement of 37 full reference air quality monitoring stations for P355 million.

The “mafia” has reportedly been emboldened by the support of their superiors in the EMB and the Department of Budget and Management which is taking over the bidding process to make sure.

The sources said the terms of reference have been tailored to favor Electrobyte Environmental Concerns Corp. by specifying that the system must require the use of an ambient air quality monitoring system called the Differential Optical Absorption Spectroscopy or DOAS.

The DOAS, according to insiders, happens to be a proprietary technology exclusively distributed by Electrobyte in the Philippines. Such TOR specification automatically disqualifies other prospective suppliers.

To level the playing field, insiders pointed out, “the TOR must carry a basic bidding term of the ambient air quality monitoring equipment or station being USEPA-compliant or one that will generally perform in accordance with the terms provided by the law.”

Limiting the terms that pre-qualify a single supplier is unfair and disadvantageous to the government, especially if this favored supplier had been bungling the job, insiders said.

They recalled that in 2013, Electrobyte supplied several continuous ambient air monitoring stations or CAMS which, they said, failed to deliver real time air quality reading.

Recently, they added, the EMB-COA auditor, along with two COA-main office engineers, inspected some of these stations in the national capital region and found them not to have functioned as specified by the supplier.

Despite the negative findings, the soft-spoken EMB-COA auditor has not filed an official report of said investigation. But in the same year, Electrobyte was reportedly still allowed to deliver several DOAS stations worth about P200 million.

They commented: “Consistent to the AQMS mafia’s condoning of Electrobyte’s blunders, EMB never published in its air quality website any real time air quality results emanating from any of the said DOAS stations.”

(First published in the Philippine STAR of October 25, 2015)

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