What is "responsible mining"?

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — When Chips Guevara learned a mining company was starting operations near his home in Lobo, Batangas, he decided to attend the public consultation.

It was an audience of mostly farmers and fisherfolk. Lobo is a third-class municipality, about 150 kilometers south of Manila.

The only risk officials told them about was silt, Guevara recalled. Since trees would have to be uprooted and an open pit would have to be dug, the soil could erode into the ocean when it rains.

But there were more pressing questions to be asked. An environmentalist by advocacy and an engineer by trade, he wanted to know what chemicals the company would use and what their impact would be on the community and its surroundings.

"So, I started asking technical questions. The first thing I asked was, are you going to use a mercury process or a cyanide process? The initial reaction I got was silence," he said.

Company officials later told him they would be using cyanide to process ores into gold. When pressed on how they planned to dispose of the toxic waste after, "it was silence again."

Guevara pointed out, "When it comes to pure cyanide, the volume of a grain of rice is enough to kill a person. And yet, you would have to bring in tons and tons of cyanide into the mining area."

Together with Gina Lopez, a well-known anti-mining advocate, they banded with church leaders, resort owners and concerned citizens, successfully lobbying the local government to withhold the company's mining permit.

Lopez is now the next Environment Secretary — an appointment that has been met with praises from civil society and worry among miners.

Related: Mining has place in Duterte economic agenda - MVP

In her first interview with CNN Philippines, she said she would prioritize a review of mining policy. Mining, she claimed, endangers the environment, impoverishes people, with only businesses profiting.

Related: Gina Lopez accepts Duterte's offer to lead DENR

But President-elect Rodrigo Duterte has not ruled out the industry as a whole, but has called for "responsible mining" instead. He has pointed to Australia and Canada as some of the world's leaders in mining and compelled local miners to adopt their best practices.

What "responsible mining" entails is unclear, though. It is disputed even within the industry.

Strong law, weak implementation

For Louie Sarmiento, head of the Philippine Mine Safety and Environment Association, there isn't much to be changed.

"Even when the Philippine Act of 1995 was enacted, we followed the Canadian, Australian, as well as other countries' best practices. Everything we need is already in the law. It's just a matter of validating and implementing it," he said.

Sarmiento admitted mining inevitably involved risk to people and the environment. But those risks are manageable, he said, and the measures to do so are already laid down by the state.

A company must have a comprehensive safety and health plan, from start to finish of a mining exploration, he said. It is also required to set aside a trust fund; this ensures it has the resources to implement that plan to the satisfaction of the government.

Waste management is central to that, Sarmiento said. The waste from mines are stored in ponds. This allows the silt to sink and be separated from the water. It also exposes cyanide to the sun until it is biodegraded.

Guevara contended, however, that even those ponds weren't foolproof. The wastewater can seep into the ground, where people get their drinking water. The ponds can also overflow into nearby bodies of water, contaminating their source of food.

This was a very real threat in Lobo, he said. The mining company wanted to locate its pond just 700 meters away from the shoreline.

"Lobo fronts the Verde Island Passage — quite possibly the most important coral reef in the world. It has the highest marine biodiversity in the world. Last year alone, scientists discovered 100 new species of marine life there. If you put silt in the Passage, that area will die," Guevara pointed out.

But Sarmiento said the structural integrity of ponds was regularly checked, both by in-house engineers and independent auditors to prevent seepage and overflow. Thickeners are being used to hasten the separation of silt from the wastewater. The quality of wastewater is also checked before it is released out to sea.

He pointed out that the worst mining disasters in the Philippines were mostly from legacy mines that operated well before the creation of the Mining Act in 1995.

Since then, any incidents have mostly been down to unforeseen circumstances, he said. For example, Philex Mining Corp.'s pond in the Padcal mine leaked in 2012 after unusually strong rains.

Miners have been factoring in heavier and heavier rainfall, especially with the onset of La Niña, Sarmiento said.

According to him, it is in the best interest of companies to ensure the safety of their mines as they stand to lose a lot in fines and foregone profits. The reputational cost is likewise huge, since companies tend to have international operations. A disaster in one country could hurt their business in another.

Philex was slapped with a P1-billion fine after the Padcal leak. Its operations were stopped for two years. It was also required to clean up and rehabilitate the surrounding area.

The pond, however, ended up releasing more than 20 million metric tons of waste into Balog Creek and Agno River in Benguet. It took Philex two months to plug the leak completely.

Sarmiento said, "Responsible mining, to me, should be pro-people, pro-environment — meaning the benefits are felt not just by the mining community but by the country in general."

But as far as Guevara is concerned, the consequences are too devastating, that even the smallest risk of a mining disaster is already too much to gamble on.

The only responsible thing for the government to do is to ban mining completely, he said.