THE members of the Commission on Appointments on Wednesday tested Environment Secretary Regina Lopez’s competence after a scientist and other groups exposed the special treatment she gave to her family’s business during her confirmation hearing.
Grilled by CA members Senator Franklin Drilon and Occidental Mindoro Rep. Josephine Ramirez-Sato, Lopez admitted she was not well-versed about the technical issues on mining even as she insisted she could change the definition of what a “watershed” is.
Drilon and Sato said she could not just do that as the law clearly provides that mining is not allowed only in “critical watershed” areas.
“A watershed is a watershed is a watershed,” Lopez replied, saying it was within her mandate to change the policy and definition of terms such as watershed.
Despite Lopez’s claim that she had no sacred cows, University of the Philippines professor and scientist Dr. Carlos Arcilla testified that Lopez’s family-owned First Balfour was doing open pit quarrying on a 13-hectare Lobo watershed area in Batangas.
Arcilla said the Lopez open pit quarrying involved blasting, and was next to another open pit mine whose mineral production and sharing agreement was canceled by Lopez.
“The Lopez-owned First Balfour is mining aggregates in a watershed area in Lobo. You may check its website and it’s there, boasting that the quarrying is ongoing,” Arcilla told the CA.
Shortly after Arcilla’s testimony, the portion about the Lobo quarrying in the First Balfour website was taken down.
But Lopez said First Balfour did not have an MPSA or any permit from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
“The First Balfour is in the area for site preparation to keep the place clean. There is no activity for the past five months, no extraction activity,” Lopez said.
But Senator Alan Peter Cayetano replied: “If First Balfour, which operates in a watershed, did not get a closure order just like the rest of the 75 MPSAs that were canceled, then that is a sacred cow.”
Senator Panfilo Lacson expressed dismay after Lopez failed when asked to define MPSA and lay down the requirements to acquire one.
“I am not a miner. I am not familiar with the terms and issues about mining but I have consultants,” she said as she called on a consultant to provide her with the information.
“We have to test her competence, Mr. Chair,” Lacson said as the CA was waiting for Lopez’s response.
Arcilla also said Lopez has not acted upon the issue of a pipe leak in Bangkal, Makati, where some 100 residents were evacuated and have yet to return home. Residents in the West Tower already returned because “they have nowhere to go to,” he said.
“The issue of the pipe leak that involved the Lopez-owned First Philippine Industrial Corp. remains unresolved to this day and I wonder how the DENR secretary stands on the issue,” Arcilla said. “This is a clear case of conflict of interest, just like in the case of First Balfour.”
Lopez said the issue had been addressed and that her family had spent $1.5 million to remedy the problem, adding that as far as she was concerned, the problem was “finished.”
“It is unfortunate to know that the DENR secretary is going around the country closing down mines but she has not been seen in Makati to check on the safety of the residents,” Arcilla said.
Sato said Lopez could not on her own decide to cancel the MPSAs and close down mines without allowing the operators to correct their supposed violations.
“No. I can. It is in the Mining Act. It is within my mandate,” Lopez said.
Lopez admitted there was a “gray area” in the law as to when the decision becomes “final and executory.”
She said the President has the last say on whether or not to close down the mines. Once the President made a decision, it becomes final and executory, she said.
Manny Galvez, managing partner of Airboard Co., also expressed his strong opposition against Lopez for refusing to act on the anomalous P1-billion air monitoring projects awarded to a “favored” supplier Electrobyte.
“The DENR secretary is busy closing down mines and passionate about the watershed. But what about the air we breathe? There is a case here of a supplier that provided non-working air monitoring stations that gave out inaccurate data but the Secretary simply ignored our complaint since Aug. 2, 2016,” Galvez testified.
Senator Vicente Sotto III asked Galvez if he would no longer oppose her confirmation if she acted on their complaint.
“We would still oppose her confirmation. This boils down to competence. She is incompetent to be the DENR secretary,” Galvez said.
Lopez came prepared and hit back at those who opposed her confirmation. She accused Galvez of being a supplier of air monitoring stations, which Galvez denied as he said his business was involving the publication of the data on the density and quality of air.
Galvez complained that they could not do business because the data being supplied by the expensive air monitors was inaccurate.
Lopez also accused Arcilla of being pro-mining because he was a consultant of a mining company.
The CA members also had a glimpse of Lopez’s attitude of insisting on what she wanted, asking the CA to move her next hearing to May 3 because she was flying Friday to the United States for a vacation.
“You should prioritize the CA,” Drilon said.
“Hmmmm… Sige, till tomorrow night,” Lopez said.
CA House contingent chairman San Juan City Rep. Ronaldo Zamora said the CA members rejected Lopez’s request to postpone the confirmation hearing.
“We have scheduled hearings for her [Thursday], and additionally Monday and Tuesday if needed, with Wednesday set for voting, to confirm or to reject,” Zamora told the Manila Standard.
Because there were so many parties opposing Lopez’s confirmation, the CA’s committee on environment chaired by Senator Manny Pacquiao suspended the hearing, which is set to resume 9 a.m. Thursday.
She will be considered bypassed if she fails to get the CA nod before Congress goes on a break on March 18.
On Wednesday, only Galvez and Arcilla were able to explain their objections to Lopez’s confirmation.
At the start f the hearing, Lopez apologized to the CA for saying that some of its members were purportedly offered P50 million each to reject her appointment.
“I also like to take this opportunity to deeply apologize to the members of the Congress because I had originally made a statement of P50 million. I know many members of the Congress personally and I can truly vouch for their integrity, their sincerity, their love of country so that was not meant as an allusion at all,” she said.
“It was a remark done without any evidence so again, if I had hurt anyone’s feelings, I want to apologize for that in front of everyone,”she said.
Virgilio Tanigue, 58, president of ATUM (Alyansa Tulay Mina ng Mindanao), assailed Lopez for the arbitrary order to stop mining operations. He said Lopez should have talked first to the owners of mining companies and ordered them to rectify any violations.
“She should have said these are our requirements, these are our laws, these are our policies and if the owners did not comply, it’s the only time to order a cessation of the mining operations,” Tanigue said.
Orlan Mayor, 43, president of the Coalition of Mine Workers and Families ang Communities, decried the absence of due process as she heard only the side of anti-mining people.
“With her decision, we can see how many were affected, which she did not consider,” he added.
Local officials in mining areas around the Caraga Region also voiced their opposition to Lopez’s appointment.
Caraga Region stands to lose 20,589 mining jobs if Lopez’s mine closure orders become final, said Evelyn R. Ramos, regional director of the Department of Labor and Employment.
Officials from Surigao and Dinagat provinces, where all the 14 Caraga-based large-scale mines that Lopez closed are located, said the closure will hurt their local revenues and affect the delivery of basic services.
Surigao del Sur Gov. Vicente Pimentel said he feared that the loss of mining jobs would result in an increase in criminality and illegal fishing in the province’s mining towns of Cantilan and Carrascal.
“In Carrascal, where I used to be mayor, highway robberies and dynamite fishing were prevalent because people had no livelihood,” Pimentel said. “It all changed when mining operations started.”
Pimentel noted that Carrascal alone will lose P198.3 million, or 62.3 percent of its total operating income, citing the figures from the Department of Finance.
In Surigao del Norte, Gov. Sol Matugas said the province had no jobs for an estimated 5,000 mine workers who would be displaced by the DENR order.
Rep. Ace Barbers (2nd district) was more direct, saying Lopez had overstepped her bounds by “failing to observe transparency and due process.”
“I initially supported her bid for DENR, but now I must say I cannot support her for several reasons, one of which is her inability to separate her personal cause from her task as a government regulator,” said Barbers, whose district hosts seven large-scale mines, three of which were ordered closed by Lopez.
In Dinagat province, meanwhile, Vice Governor Benglen Ecleo said they cannot support Lopez following her decision to close down seven large-scale mines in the province.
Vice Gov. Ecleo said Dinagat stands to lose 75 percent of its annual revenues, noting that mining is the primary driver of economic growth in the province—a declared mineral land since 1939.
“The impact on our towns will also be devastating. The municipality of Tubajon alone earns P38 million in annual taxes from mining operations, which amounts to 55.4 percent of its total operating income,” Ecleo said.
Lopez held consultations in Surigao and Dinagat provinces late last month, promising mine workers alternative jobs under her “green economy” program. She said jobless miners can be employed under the agency’s National Greening Program.