By Manolo Serapio Jr
MANILA (Reuters) - A team that reviewed an audit of Philippine mines recommended suspension of operations and payment of fines for environmental violations, rather than the closure of 23 mines ordered by the minister overseeing the process, two people with knowledge of the matter said.
Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Regina Lopez on Thursday ordered the mines shut, saying many were operating in watersheds. The mines to be closed account for half of nickel ore output by the world's top supplier of the metal. Another five mines were suspended.
The decision has angered the country's mining industry, with miners saying the shutdowns will affect 1.2 million people and some vowing to overturn the ruling.
However, the review team that advised on the process believed some of the violations, which included insufficient rehabilitation of mined areas, absence of tree-cutting permits and construction of alternate haul roads, were rectifiable, and did not warrant permanent closure, one of the people said.
"She's the boss, she has all the discretion," the person said. "The only question is what was her basis in her decision?"
Lopez, a long-time environmentalist who took over the department that oversees the mining sector last June when tough-talking President Rodrigo Duterte came to power, has declined to release the recommendations of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) review team.
"What's important here is the decision I make as cabinet secretary, not the recommendations ... Don't try to make things complicated," she told reporters on Thursday.
"You cannot have any kind of mining operations in a watershed. Water is life."
BANNED FROM BRIEFING
Damage to watersheds and siltation of coastal waters where the mines are located were the major reasons that led to Lopez's decision to shut them, said a second person with knowledge of the matter.
"The secretary herself went to the mining sites and she personally reviewed the documents and that led to the decision," the person said.
Lopez launched the environmental audit of the mines in July, initially suspending 10 and saying 20 more were at risk of being halted. The bureau's review team began examining the audit results and the responses from miners in December, one of the sources said.
Members of the review team were banned from Thursday's briefing, according to a mining industry group and one of the sources.
Not allowing the Mines and Geosciences Bureau personnel to attend the press conference "leaves a lot of doubt in the fairness of the entire process," Artemio Disini, chairman of the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines, said in a letter to Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez on Friday.
Dominguez has expressed concern over the looming job losses.
"There has to be due process," said Vicente Lao, owner of chromite producer Mt. Sinai Mining Exploration and Development Corp, which was ordered to close.
Australian miner OceanaGold Corp, which was ordered suspended, said it "will not rule out commencing proceedings to appeal to a higher authority, and seek to stay and overturn the order" once it receives it.
(Reporting by Manolo Serapio Jr.; Additional reporting by Enrico dela Cruz; Editing by Richard Pullin)