MANILA, Philippines – Environment Secretary Gina Lopez denied on Wednesday, March 8, that one of her family's companies, First Balfour, operates an open-pit mine in Lobo, Batangas.
"Balfour has no [mineral production sharing agreements], there is no MPSA, it's not operational," Lopez told members of the Commission on Appointments (CA) during her confirmation hearing on Wednesday.
She was responding to the opposition of Carlo Arcilla, one of the 23 oppositors to her confirmation. (READ: Lopez's game plan at confirmation hearing: 'Tell the truth')
Arcilla of the Asia Oceania Geosciences Society and the University of the Philippines' National Institute of Geological Sciences said First Balfour "is mining aggregates in a watershed" in Lobo, Batangas.
Lopez has repeatedly opposed any mining activity in Lobo, which she called the "center of marine biodiversity" in the world.
"It's mining open-pit style in a watershed. But then, the mine that's behind it, or a little below it, MRL, was closed, because it's in a watershed," Arcilla said, referring to the cancelled MPSAs of MRL-Egerton Gold.
On Wednesday, the environment secretary said Balfour "has not commenced" and that it was not given permits by her department.
"I give my commitment to the honorable body, I'm non-negotiable on this stand: there should not be any extractive activity within watersheds. I have been told there's no MPSA and if there has been, I will immediately do show-cause for that also. There's no sacred cow here, no extractive... anything putting at risk ecology in watershed areas," she assured the CA.
Arcilla said he is not against open-pit mining because stopping it would also "stop all quarries."
"If we stop all quarries, all construction in this country will stop. There is no quarry that is not an open-pit mine… This is the problem when we have such simplistic policies," he added.
Lopez clarified that she never said the country should not quarry.
"Clearly we need quarrying – I come from a business family – but you shouldn't do it in a watershed," she added.
Arcilla and Lopez also clashed on the meaning of open-pit mining, and CA member and Senator Alan Peter Cayetano called out Lopez on it.
"I just heard you say that's not your definition of open-pit mining, and I will have a problem with that because there is an internationally-accepted, scientific definition for open-pit mining. And everyone knows that, for example, cement, when you get cement, that's open-pit mining," he explained.
Cayetano said the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) can't have a different definition of open-pit mining from the definitions of the industry and the CA.
"If the secretary and the DENR are now gonna say that we're going to have our own definitions different from the definition of industry or experts, how will we now – when we go to court or when we go to the committee or they do the appeal – how can we now talk apples to apples?"
Still, Lopez assured the CA that if any member of her family or any institution violates environmental laws, "they will be treated just like everyone else."
"If my family has been found remiss in the environment, they will be asked to comply, and they're fully aware of that," she said. (READ: Green vs greed? The Lopezes' new family saga)
The environment secretary noted that Arcilla is a consultant for companies that are into mining, but Cayetano noted that being a consultant "is also a plus."
"For the public, that doesn't necessarily mean they're incompetent or they should not testify because precisely, that's their expertise," he added.
Arcilla is one of only two oppositors who were able to present their case before the CA on Wednesday.
CA Assistant Majority Floor Leader and Senator Vicente Sotto III moved to resume Lopez's confirmation hearing on Thursday, March 9. – Rappler.com
Jee is part of Rappler's Central Desk, handling most of the world, science, and environment stories on the site. She enjoys listening to podcasts and K-pop, watching Asian dramas, and running long distances. She hopes to visit Israel someday to retrace the steps of her Savior.