by Norma Hennessy
‘Rafting along Abra River’
Photo courtesy of Carmelita Omly
An impending ‘Frankenstein’ hub in Abra is in the works with the precedence of this mining processing plant now constructed in Lagangilang, Abra! Without yet any permit or prior consultation with the people before the plant structures were erected, this “PHANTOM OF DEATH” was insidiously brought in and now lurks to sow doom in the lives of Abrenians.
According to the news TV report of GMA posted on Utube on November 2, 2013, there has been, at the time, no application for Environmental Compliance Certificate to Operate received by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Yet the structures have already been put in place. In retrospect, it was simply a blatant disregard of the law by the authorities concerned. It was a carte blanche wielding of authority – an audacious posturing of being above it and above the people whose rights to be consulted with have been breached. Perhaps protocol and law compliance have long been either subject to selective implementation or have been rendered nonexistent here as a matter of practice.
Abra, afterall is in a cranny of the earth where it commands little visibility, much less merits concern and attention from national government. According to the Mayor Patrocinio Abaya, they have given approval for this plant to operate to lessen the illegal small scale mining.
This sleepy agricultural town by the bank of the once mighty Abra River is yet to get shocked into awakening. And what an awakening it would be! Little did the residents in the area know that their future was being remapped on a political crystal ball when a Korean construction company started building structures on the private property of a resident designated at the mayor’s approval. The structures were designed for a mining processing plant which, judging by its location, has the Abra River for dumping site for mining processing wastes (refuse). Further up in the upland municipality of Baay, Abra where unregulated mining is rampant, wastes are indiscriminately discarded and abandoned, spreading unimaginable hazards to humans and the environment and then carried downstream by the Abra River tributary. The Abra River originates from the southern section of Mount Data in the Cordilleras and covers a stretch of 178 kilometers from source up to where it flows out into the South China Sea in Ilocos Sur. The river is the lifeline of Benguet and the agricultural provinces of Abra province and Ilocos Sur.
Heavily polluted due to mine tailings from mining operations in the uplands that filter through it, the river has since been divested of marine life, rendering many a specie of marine life extinct. Debris that flowed into the river has been wreaking havoc in riverside agricultural lands, rendering them un-arable and divesting people of their only source of livelihood.
Meantime, in the valley where the river meanders, increasing sediments caused by intensified soil erosion and mine tailings swept down by floods from the upland tributaries have settled in the rising riverbeds causing accelerated sedimentation and causing the rise of flood water level during rainy season. The rising river flow level during heavy rains have been eroding cliff walls and embankments, thereby eating into a whole stretch of riverside barangay land as in the case of Poblacion West in Pidigan. This in turn has prompted the frantic cry of residents for help to save their land from being washed away.
Abra River meandering - Pidigan
Photos courtesy of Joselito Balla
While there has been a number of advocacy movements crying out foul and are continuing to demand for the government intervention in resolving the issue of environment destruction from irresponsible mining, illegal logging, forest burning and other nature-defacing practices, the national government, through its DENR arm, remained blasé at the blatant pillage and destruction of the environment. This issue largely involves the unethical operational practices of multinational corporations that have been granted to operate mining in the uplands.
The mining processing plant operation in Barbarit, lagangilang will involve hazardous processing in obtaining gold. Such a process exacts enormous human and environmental costs and risks.
Gold processing involves the highly hazardous use of mercury to separate fine gold particles by amalgamation. A complex mixture of Au-Hg is distilled in retorts and burned in the open air, releasing great amounts of Hg to the atmosphere. Metallic Hg is also lost to the rivers and soils.
A CASE IN POINT-MINAMATA
Mercury is a metallic element which when unscrupulously handled would result in a tragic episode of history repeating itself as in the case of the mercury poisoning of a sleepy quiet Japanese fishing village of the 1950s- Minamata. Minamata is located on the Western Coast of Japan’s southernmost island Kyushu. It was where acetaldehyde, an element used to produce plastics was being manufactured in the 1930s in which the mercury that came from the production process has been spilling into the bay.
Mercury is a heavy metal and it became incorporated into methyl mercury chloride: an organic form that could enter the food chain. Minamata residents heavily relied on fish which came from the same bay where mercury was spilt. It took a few years before the collective impact would retrievably take its toll.
“In the early 1950s, bizarre behavior began to appear--sporadically and without much notice--in humans. People would stumble while walking, not be able to write or button their buttons, have trouble hearing or swallowing, or tremble uncontrollably. In 1956 an apparent epidemic broke out and one can imagine the confusion--and fear--that was prevalent because no one knew the cause. Was it a viral inflammation of the brain? Was it syphilis? Was it hereditary ataxia, or alcoholism? Was it infectious? The popular names of “cat’s-dancing disease” and the “strange disease” convey some of both the mystery and its alienating quality.
The physiological effects, including successive loss of motor control, were devastating, and resulted in sometimes partly paralyzed and contorted bodies. One resident, Tsuginori Hamamoto, described the plight of his father, a fisherman. Virtually overnight, Sohachi lost his ability to keep his balance, or to stay afloat in the water once he had fallen off the boat. He could not put on his sandals, walk properly, or understand what others were saying to him. Once hardy and strongly self-willed, his condition quickly degenerated, and he was hosptialized on the fourth day. There, even tied to his bed with bandages, he “craze-danced,” said words that were not words; he salivated; he convulsed. Later, he tore at his own skin with his fingernails until his body bled. “Mother would look at Dad,” Tsuginori recalled, “and just stand there--tears dropping from her eyes--looking dazed. Then we realized that the same symptoms were developing in Mother.” The father died within seven weeks, the mother nine years later.
(Mercury concentrates itself specifically in neural tissue. Early effects thus include loss of peripheral sensation and restriction of the visual field. Patients in advanced stages of the condition show considerable atrophy of brain. The granular cells of the cerebellum are especially targeted, accounting for the ataxic gait, tremors, and sometimes violent convulsions of the patients.)
By the end of 1956, epidemiol ogical and medical researchers identified the disease as heavy-metal poisoning caused by eating the fish and shellfish of Minamata Bay. Direct evidence that mercury from the Chisso plant was responsible, however, did not emerge until 1959. Dr. Hajimé Hosokawa, in private tests on cats at the Chisso Company Hospital, showed that the plant’s acetaldehyde waste water caused the disease symptoms (though the results were not made public). Chisso installed a “cyclator” designed to control the emissions, offered `mimai’ (consolation payments) to the patients, and the matter seemed resolved. Nearly 100 patients had been identified, of whom over twenty had died.
More patients emerged, however. Children were also born with the “disease.” The geographical distribition of cases widened. In 1963, Public Health Service researchers traced the disease to mercury from Chisso. Controversy soon erupted over who was responsible for compensating the victims and supporting their families. It was not until 1970 that a district court ruled that Chisso make payments totalling $3.2 million to the original group of patients; others soon received payment by negotiating directly with Chisso.
The outcome was tragic: a whole town was both literally and figuratively poisoned.” – (Reference: Douglas Allchin - http://www1.umn.edu/ships/ethics/minamata.htm)
“The health hazards that result from exposure to mercury depend on the level of exposure and the way in which the pollutant enters the body. Inhalation of mercury vapor is particularly hazardous for kidneys, the central nervous system, and the respiratory and cardiovascular systems. Inhalation of mercury vapor has also been found to cause neurobehavioral disorders, such as hand tremor and mental retardation. Exposure to other forms of mercury – and in particular the methylmercury that accumulates in fish – can also lead to problems with the kidneys, lungs, and central nervous system, in addition to arthritis, reproductive problems, loss of memory, psychosis, and in some cases, death. Children exposed to mercury contamination have a higher risk of developmental complications.”
For foetuses, infants, and children, the primary health effect of methyl mercury (from mercury ) is impaired neurological development. Methyl mercury exposure in the womb, which can result from a mother’s consumption of fish and shellfish that contain methyl mercury, can adversely affect a baby’s growing brain and nervous system. Impacts on cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, and fine motor and visual spatial skills have been seen in children exposed to methyl mercury in the womb.
TO NO MAN’S LAND
The atrocity poised by the gold processing operation will wreak immeasurable havoc to the Abra River, the surrounding environment and will have a huge detrimental impact on the people. With continuing unregulated mining in the uplands, indifference to Abra River’s health, inaction at environmental destruction and lands being washed away, to treat such highly hazardous operation as another ordinary commercial business is putting the province and the Cordilleras in its deathbed! It shall kick off Abra’s painful conversion into No Man’s land!