By Ellen Tordesillas
We were in Rio Tuba last month, in the southern tip of Palawan, for an overview visit of Nickel Asia Corporation's oldest mine.
I was with three other reporters . The purpose of the trip, as JB Baylon, Nickel Asia's new vice-president for communications told us, was to show us "responsible mining."
JB, who used to be with Coca-Cola Export said, the reason he took the Nickel Asia job, at the time when the industry is getting a beating from environmentalists, was " I believe there CAN be responsible mining operations like the Rio Tuba operation, and mining should be nothing less than responsible. "
Briefing us on Nickel Asia's operations was no less than its president, Jerry Brimo.
Brimo was born into and bred in mining. His father, Henry, founded Philex Mining. Jerry himself headed Philex for the longest time until five years, when Manny V. Pangilinan took control of it.
Anyway, Nickel Asia's Rio Tuba operation is one of its four mining sites. The others are Cagdianao mine in Dinagat Island in the northern tip of Mindanao; Tagamaan mine in Hinatuan island in the northern end of Mindanao; and the Taganito mine in Surigao del Norte, north-east corner of Mindanao.
Nickel Asia is the Philippines largest producer of laterite nickel ore and one of the largest in the world. From 1977, the year Rio Tuba mine started operation to 2010, Nickel Asia has sold a total of 60 million tons of ore up to 2010.
"We export both saprolite and limonite ore to customers in Japan and China. Our customers use our ore for the production of ferronickel and nickel pig iron, both used to produce stainless steel, and for the production of pig iron used for carbon steel," Brimo said.
Nickel has plenty of uses. It is used in medicine as implant and surgical instruments, household gadgets like spoon, forks, kitchen utensils, sinks. It's used in transport manufacturing including in airplanes. It's a vital component in manufacturing plants. It's used in computer hard discs, CD and DVD moulds.
Life without nickel is unimaginable. And how do you extract nickel. It has to be mined.
Also in Rio Tuba is Coral Bay Nickel Corporation, the country's first hydrometallurgical nickel processing plant, where a major investor is Japan's Sumitomo Metal Mining Co. Ltd.
Nickel Asia's Rio Tuba mine covers all of 990 hectares. As in all mining sites, indigenous communities have been displaced.
Rio Tuba Nickel Mining and Coral Bay Nickel Corp's Social Development Management program include improving the lives of an estimated 13,000 indigenous people belonging to 24 communities like providing Gawad Kalinga houses and giving them access to an education system suited to their culture. DEPED-accredited Indigenous Learning System classes are held in the community.
Whether the people whose forefathers were in the area, long before big business came, are getting their due share of the gifts of the land is something that we have to find out some other time.
What we were impressed about was the rehabilitation of mined-out areas.
Nickel Asia said their operations manage their environmental projects through Annual Environmental Protection and Enhancement Programs (AEPEPs). "These are prepared and submitted yearly for review to their respective Multi-Partite Mine Monitoring Teams (MMT) and Mine Rehabilitation Fund Committees, and finally for approval to the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB)"
Information from Nickel Asia materials says lateritic nickel deposits are shallow (about 20 feet deep) and "their extraction does not require the use of explosives. The environmental impact of our mining operations is therefore limited to ground disturbance that can result in erosion and sedimentation, and dust."
"The AEPEPs of our operations provide for erosion and sedimentation control primarily through the use of sediment settling ponds, which are regularly maintained…Supplementary measures for rainfall erosion include soil covers, drainage structures to keep surface runoff away from disturbed areas and water velocity reducers. For dust control, windbreaks and water sprays along road networks are being used.
We were brought to an area which they started rehabilitating in 2008. It is now a forest . They purposely planted the area with trees native to the Philippines. There's another area where they are experimenting planting other species like Tongkat Ali, whose roots are being bruited to be an aphrodisiac.
It is said that the presence of nickel deposits was discovered after the area was cleared by loggers.
In the rehabilitated area, there's a billboard that proclaims: "Mother nature gives us the minerals; we give her back a forest."
Or we can say it's continuing nature's cycle.