Cimatu forms task force to address mercury poisoning in 2 Palawan villages

Secretary Roy A. Cimatu has ordered the creation of a task force within the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to tackle the reported mercury poisoning among residents of two villages near an abandoned mine site in Puerto Princesa City.

Cimatu assured that the DENR would "act with resolve and urgency" in making sure that the contamination from the mine previously operated by Palawan Quicksilver Mines Inc. (PQMI) will be addressed accordingly.

It was earlier reported that several residents of barangays Santa Lourdes and Tagburos in the Palawan capital have been exposed to mercury, a highly toxic substance that poses threats to human health and the environment.

Cimatu said he would consult and coordinate with experts within the DENR and from other agencies to ensure public safety amid the reported mercury poisoning.

"While the findings may still be inconclusive, our priority is to protect the community and the environment from the hazards of mercury," he said.

Aside from the formation of a DENR task force, the DENR chief also ordered the containment of the affected areas, particularly the pit lake by completing the perimeter fence to prevent residents from fishing thereat.

He also directed the Ecosystems Research and Development Bureau to undertake research on scientific interventions to rehabilitate the affected area, as well as the department’s legal service to study the accountability of PQMI.

The contamination was discovered after the regional office of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) in Mimaropa conducted three aquatic biota and sediment samplings within the pit lake and at the Honda Bay area in 2016 after noting that there were people fishing in the lake.

High levels of mercury were found in the fishes gathered from the mine's "lake pit," prompting the MGB to seek help from the Department of Health (DOH) in assessing the health condition of affected residents.

The DOH then conducted random testing on 104 residents from the two barangays. They tested positive for mercury in their blood and hair, and exhibited symptoms of contamination in neurological and physical assessments.

Traces of mercury were also found in fish and shellfish around the wharf area in Santa Lourdes, a takeoff point for Honda Bay island hoppers.

Cimatu said the task force will be composed of experts from various DENR bureaus, as well as representatives from the legal service of the central office, DENR Mimaropa office, and the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development, an attached agency of the DENR.

He said the primary duties of "Task Force Mercury" are to "isolate and contain the contaminated area, know the people who can possibly be treated by the DOH, and run after the mining company to make them liable."

The findings and outputs of the task force will be submitted to a multi-agency group to be formed later, he added.

According to MGB-Mimaropa Regional Director Roland de Jesus, PQMI started its operations in the area in the mid 1950s prior to the passage of the New Philippine Mining Act of 1995.

At the time, the environmental and social impacts of mining had not yet been included in the law, he pointed out.

PQMI used open pit mining to extract cinnabar ore, a toxic mineral composed of mercuric sulfide or HgS and whose deposits in the country can only be found in Barangay Santa Lourdes.

The mercury hazard was attributed to exposed mine tailings in a three-hectare pit that was filled over time with rainwater. This “lake pit” has affected Tagburos River, which in turn flows into nearby Honda Bay, an ecotourism destination famous for island hopping activities.

The company had ceased operations sometime in 1976 after suffering losses from a drop in cinnabar prices. They, however, had been able to ship almost 3,000 tons of HgS to Japan.

The Philippines is party to the Minamata Convention, a globally binding instrument regulating the use of mercury among members. The Convention was so named after an incident in Minamata, Japan, where people contracted the Minamata disease after consuming fish and shellfish contaminated by mercury from wastewater discharged by the Chisso Corporation.

Mercury is a highly toxic metallic element that can damage the brain, lungs, kidneys and heart, and cause irreversible neurological damage that can lead to decreased intelligence and increased violent behaviour. It can also lead to paralysis, coma, and even death. ###