It seems the Philippines is not yet ready to withstand powerful earthquakes. The 6.1 magnitude quake that rocked Pampanga and killed 18 people in April this year should have resulted in stricter construction rules to minimize damage to property and prevent the loss of lives.
But authorities so far have not delved into the structural defects of buildings that collapsed in the April temblor. The Chuzon supermarket in Porac, Pampanga caved in after that April earthquake. Until now, despite the fact that Chuzon building was only four stories high and clear evidence of substandard steel rebars was discovered by investigators at the site, no findings, or solutions against future stronger quakes, have been released by the relevant agencies.
The Department of Trade and Industry, the Department of Public Works and Highways and the Department of the Interior and Local Government have kept silent on the results of the investigation.
A lawmaker, however, has taken up the cudgels on behalf of the public. Rep. Lemuel Fortun (1st District of Agusan del Norte) filed a bill directing the House Committee on Trade and Industry to investigate the alleged smuggling and proliferation of substandard steel products in the Philippines due to the “collusion between large steelmakers and officials of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the Bureau of Customs.”
Fortun urged the committee to look into the alleged connivance between the government and the biggest big steel manufacturer in the country.
Fortun’s bill is anchored on fears expressed over the past two years year by consumer groups, specifically buyers of high-rise condominiums across the country, over reports of the continued selling of substandard steel rebars by big steel manufacturers. The unabated sale may render thousands of high-rise structures unsafe in the event of a powerful earthquake.
The Agusan del Norte lawmaker expressed suspicion that the collapse of the four-story supermarket in Porac may have been “due to the use of Quenched Steel (QT) bars used in constructing the building.”
Investigators who combed the the Chuzon wreckage immediately after the quake found twisted remnants of QT rebars at the site with telltale markings of Steel Asia Manufacturing Corp., the biggest steel maker in the country.
Fortun said the committee should “determine the veracity of various reports to protect the welfare of the Filipino consumers, plug holes in the government revenue streams, clamp down on corruption, and if warranted, exact accountability on public officials involved in the aforesaid unscrupulous acts.”
He singled out the alleged collusion of local steel manufacturers with “avaricious and unconscientious officials of the DTI and the BOC to cover up the rampant deceitful replacement of Micro Alloy (MA) steel bars with QT steel bars, and the large-scale smuggling of steel bars.”
Fortunately, the BOC is now cracking down on undervalued steel importations amid reports that substandard steel products, which put the structural soundness of infrastructure in the country at risk, continue to flood the local market.
Assistant Customs Commissioner Philip Vincent Maronilla has conceded that four to five big steel companies were being audited by the bureau.
The BOC’s investigation followed an announcement by the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission of a parallel probe into alleged corruption between several big steel manufacturers and officials of the BOC, who may have deprived the government of billions of pesos in tax revenues.
The PACC claimed that Steel Asia imported two million tons of steel billets last year, and might be responsible for over half a trillion pesos worth of lost revenues for the government due to systematic misdeclaration of importation figures.
The PACC suspects that big steel importers, in collusion with BOC officials, have been manipulating the HS codes (the universal code for export and import goods). Specifically, the steelmakers have been describing the imports of cast and prime steel billets used for steel manufacturing as Grade 60, when in fact the orders under the same code are a mix of Grade 40 (5sp) and Grade 33 (3sp). They are then allegedly able to misdeclare the imported billets at a lower value.
Emilio Morales, former chairman of Association of Structural Engineers of the Philippines has questioned in a study the structural stability of locally made QT steel bars for high-rise buildings.
“Being near the Pacific Ring is the main reason why certain types of steel materials are not recommended for use in high-rise buildings in the country,” he said. “Substandard construction materials, particularly QT rebars, would not withstand a magnitude 7.2 earthquake.”
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