‘Gina’s order favored family business’
ENVIRONMENT Secretary Regina Lopez has issued a memo that excludes certain quarrying activities—including those of her family-owned First Balfour—from a moratorium on mining in watershed areas, documents show.
Lopez issued the exclusion order that would benefit her family’s company shortly after she declared before the Commission on Appointments that she had no sacred cows.
“In view of the need to address the requirements for cement, aggregates and related materials of the construction industry, quarry resources, such as limestone, aggregates and other related materials used in the said industry, are hereby excluded from the scope of the moratorium on the acceptance, processing and/or approval of mining applications and/or new approval of mining projects under Department Memorandum Order No. 2016-1,” said Lopez’s order dated March 10.
First Balfour, owned by the Lopezes, operates an open pit quarry within a 13-hectare watershed area in Lobo, Batangas. It mines aggregates, one of the subjects of the exclusion.
Lopez signed the exclusion order, which was also initialed by her trusted consultant Leo Jasareno a few hours before she flew to the United States for a vacation.
The exclusion order was to take effect “immediately.”
UP professor of Geosciences, Carlo Arcilla, said this was a clear “conflict of interest arising from an unbelievable ignorance of what a watershed and what open pit mining operations are, coming from the secretary designate of DENR.”
On March 8, Arcilla, also chief of Earth Materials Science Laboratory of the National Institute of Geological Sciences in UP Diliman, testified before the CA to oppose the confirmation of Lopez.
Arcilla said while Lopez imposed a moratorium on other quarrying firms, she allowed First Balfour to operate within a watershed.
He said Lopez, however, canceled the mineral production and sharing agreement with another quarry firm, MRL, which was located right next to First Balfour.
“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.
The section on the quarrying was taken down from the First Balfour website, however.
First Balfour did not have an MPSA or any permit from the DENR, Arcilla said.
Lopez, who insisted she had no sacred cows, denied that her family was still mining the area, saying they were there “to prepare the area and keep it clean.”
She added that there had been on activity in the last five months.
“If the First Balfour, which operates in a watershed, did not get a closure order just like the rest of the 75 MPSAs or mineral production sharing agreements that were canceled, then that is a sacred cow,” CA member Senator Alan Peter Cayetano had said.
Arcilla said First Balfour was operating a quarry under the permit of Torreverde Corp., a wholly-owned company of First Balfour.
“Torreverde Corp. has a quarry applicaton no. Bp-AQP-03-16 [rock and filling materials] for five hectares at MGB 4A. The Application was submitted 19 April 2016 and is being processed. Right after my testimony in the CA, the details were taken out from the First Balfour website,” Arcilla told the Manila Standard.
Securities and Exchange Commission documents show Torreverde Corp. registered itself as a non-metallic mining and quarrying stock corporation.
The Lopez-owned First Balfour, Inc. is Torreverde’s majority stakeholder, owning 99.99 percent, SEC documents show.
Shortly after the CA hearing, Arcilla said he sent his own field officer to verify if indeed there was activity in the area.
Arcilla said some structures had been built in the area, including a crushing plant.
“There are rock crushing machineries and trucks. It is true they are not operating now but there clearly were quarrying operations. There is nothing wrong with First Balfour’s quarrying operation or its application. What is questionable is why MRL, which is in the same Lobo watershed, and which has a much smaller footprint, and which has not also started, was given a show cause for ‘being in a watershed’ whereas the quarries, which are all open pit and which are all on watershed, and specifically First Balfour, which is Lopez-owned, was not stopped,” Arcilla said.
The CA will reconvene on May 2, when Congress resumes its sessions and give its verdict on whether to confirm or reject Lopez on May 3, according to CA House contingent chairman San Juan City Rep. Ronaldo Zamora.
The CA bypassed Lopez following an executive caucus on Tuesday.