Marinduque, a small island in the Philippines, was the site of the worst industrial disaster in Philippine history, where Canadian company Placer Dome operated a copper mine for thirty years.
Marinduque, circled in red, a small island in the Philippines.
In 1993, in Marinduque, one of the tailings dams of Placer Dome’s copper mine burst sending millions of tons of mine waste raging down the Mogpog river in a flash flood that swept away homes, people and livestock. The path of destruction can still be seen, fifteen years later, all along the Mogpog River, which remains biologically dead.
These used to be thriving rice fields which have been barren since the 1993 dam collapse. Nothing has been able to grow on this once fertile land. This farm has been abandoned.
A closer look, through a hole in the wall, at this abandoned farm. No one knew for sure what has happened to the family that once lived there.
In 1996, three years after the destruction of the Mogpog River, Placer Dome's copper mine suffered another dam collapse sending millions of tons of mine waste in the opposite direction destroying the Boac river. Fifteen years on both rivers remain biologically dead and contain dangerous levels of toxic chemicals. Dead trees and other debris can still be seen all along the rivers.
Another look at the Boac River in Marinduque, which has been biologically dead since the dam collapse in 1996. The company continues to deny any responsibility for what was the worst industrial disaster in Philippine history. They blame the disaster on "an act of God." After being ordered by the government to clean up their mess, the company responded by packing their bags and sneaking out of the country.
Remy washes her laundry in the poisoned Mogpog River in Marinduque. With the two main rivers on the small island now biologically dead and containing dangerous levels of toxic chemicals, many of the residents of the island are left with no safe water supply to rely on.
An 80 year old farmer, Thomas has spent his life providing for his family by making coconut wine and raising livestock. When the first dam collapsed in 1993, the resulting flash flood of mine waste swept away Thomas' most treasured cow and he nearly drowned.
Thomas has baithed in the Mogpog River every day since he was a baby. His body is now covered with skin discolouration which he started developing about forty years ago when Placer Dome's mine was in full operation.
The island of Marinduque has never been able to afford conducting a full medical survey of the island, but smaller studies have shown that, of 59 children tested, every single one of them had unacceptable levels of lead or cyanide in their blood.
Wilson used to fish in the Calancan Bay in Marinduque. Wilson recalls that most of the 15,000 villagers in the area used to make a living from fishing in the bay for a few hours every other day. Now, he says, there are more fishermen than fish, and the men have to go far out to sea everyday. But the president of the company, John Dodge, continues to maintain that “the fishermen of Calancan Bay have not suffered in any way because of the tailings disposal.”
Over a period of sixteen years, Placer Dome dumped 200million tons of mine waste into the shallow coral-rich bay despite vocal opposition from the community.
One day, when he was out fishing years ago, Wilson went out into the water with a small cut in his leg. As a result, Wilson suffered from mercury poisoning rendering his legs useless. One leg has been amputated, the other one will have to come off as well.
“Imagine…being forced into a situation where you lived in a house…and a contractor puts a huge swimming pool up on your roof. You then suddenly receive a secret report that says the roof can cave in at any time and the water can drown you and your children who live below!…How would you feel if you had no other place to live? If you feel desperate, you have just put yourselves in the shoes of…almost 100,000 villagers in my home province of Marinduque.” - Congressman Edmund Reyes from Marinduque.
Since Placer Dome left the Philippines the abandoned Sand Antonio Pit has gradually filled with rainwater. The San Antonio Pit now contains millions of tons of water, which has mixed with mine waste and other toxic chemicals, being held back by failing dams. According to a leaked document from Placer Dome's own environmental consultants, "failure of the dam is a virtual certainty in the near term".
The small island of Marinduque is located within a typhoon belt. Every time it rains, the pressure on the failing dam increases, making the collapse a question of when not if.
The mounting pressure being applied to the failing dam puts over 100,000 villagers below in grave danger, but there is nothing they can do.
When the dam does eventually collapse, much of the surrounding villages will be inundated by flash floods with the contents of the San Antonio Pit which contains dangerous toxic chemicals.
When asked about what can be done about the situation, one common response was "all we can do is sit and wait for the next disaster."
When the first dam collapsed in 1993, the flash flood of toxic waste swept away Thomas' treasured cow and he nearly drowned. With the San Antonio Pit now on the verge of collapse, Thomas knows that his home will be one of the first ones swept under by the coming flash floods, but he has nowhere else go. With his already deteriorating health, he stands little chance of surviving.
“Look, that dam could break at any time, maybe next week, maybe tomorrow, I don’t know. But I do know that when it does happen, my house and my family will probably be destroyed. And just like last time, the company will blame it on an ‘Act of God.’ I want that picture to exist, so that people can know what happened. For that, I would be willing to sacrifice myself.” With those words a brave Marinduqueño snuck a photographer in the back of a truck into Placer Dome’s old copper mine, successfully evading the armed guards still protecting the property. Here he stands in front of the San Antonio Pit, containing the millions of tons of mine waste which will eventually come crashing down on his home. His bravery and determination to put himself in harms way for the sake of this documentation is a stronger testament to the anxiety Marinduqueños have to live with than any picture can offer.
After being ordered by the Philippine government to make the necessary repairs to the San Antonio Pit and clean up their mess from the previous two dam failures or face criminal charges, Placer Dome responded by packing their bags and sneaking out of the country. When Placer Dome left Marinduque, they left behind them the mess from years of dumping mine waste directly into Calancan Bay; the island’s two main rivers of Mogpog and Boac were destroyed and poisoned by separate dam collapses in 1993 and 1996; a population suffering from heavy metal contamination; stripped forests; and a nine-hole golf course.
The island has never seen a single centavo of the profits that Placer Dome raked in.
More information on Marinduque:
Statement of the People of Marinduque for the Government and People of Canada
Oxfam Australia’s case report on Marinduque
MiningWatch Canada: Backgrounder on Placer Dome in the Philippines