One quarry operator involved in the controversial Coron reclamation project has denied accusations raised by concerned locals that their operation is illegal.

Ernesto Mercado, the owner of the 428 Hi-Tech Group, said in a phone interview on Wednesday that their quarrying, which was approved in 2018, is for “stockpiling” aggregates that will be used for the reclamation project.

He claimed their quarrying activities are not illegal as they have permits and are not an issue to the DENR.

“Doon sa sinasabing illegal ang reclamation, ay nakakatawa naman po yan. Kasi yang project na yan ay joint project ng provincial government ng Palawan and municipality of Coron, approve also by the Philippine Reclamation Authority (PRA) and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR),” he said.

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The Coron Bay Development Project reclamation site. (Copy from Mr. Ernesto Mercado)

“Ang quarrying namin tuloy-tuloy, kasi nagso-stockpile kami. Hindi na kami nagtatambak ngayon sa dagat, mayroon lang kaming area dito sa Westown [Resort], na ipinapakiusap ng Westown kung puwedeng isara na lang namin. Pinadidikit lang niya ang tambak sa kanilang hotel. Pero ang quarry, bakit kami hihinto sa quarry? Mayroon kaming DENR permit, mayroon kaming ECC (environmental compliance certificate),” Mercado added.

Based on the tourism master plan of the municipality, the reclamation project, also known as the Coron Bay Development Project (CBDP), is a two-phased 50-hectare investment initiative that is projected to respond to the future demand in the town for lands for tourism and commercial activities. The barangays of Poblacion 2, 3, and 5 encompass the site, which has an average depth of 5-7 meters from the seafloor.

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As shown, the reclamation will include among others a baywalk, a sewage treatment plan, business building, apartment complex, and factory. (Copy from Mr. Ernesto Mercado)

Renewed controversy on the project and the quarrying that came with it surfaced after resident Niña Gonzales shared an open letter addressed to the national environment and interior government offices demanding for an investigation into the quarrying, alleging that they were being done without prior consultation to Coron residents or even the municipal government. The letter also blamed the quarrying for flooding and causing siltation in mangroves and damaging coral reefs.

The reclamation project was ordered to be halted, not their quarrying operations, Mercado said, since they need aggregates for the reclamation project after they’ve met the environmental department’s extra conditions.

Area clearance complied
The DENR issued a stop notice to the project in January of this year because they needed to comply with the area clearance rule, according to Mercado.

The term “area clearance” refers to the rational exploration, development, usage, and protection of land by the government and private sector in order to boost national growth while successfully safeguarding the environment and protecting the rights of impacted populations.

“Ang area clearance ay napakaraming requirements [mula] sa iba-ibang government agencies na sa ngayon po ay na-comply na namin, just two weeks ago — nakumpleto na namin yong papel — for transmittal na sa office ni Sec. (Roy) Cimatu [of the DENR],” Mercado said.

He said they are just waiting for Cimatu to sign the area clearance document so they can resume the reclamation project.

“Tuloy ang aming quarry operations para sa stockpiling,” he said.

Mercado went on to say that even though the DENR issued a violation notice to the reclamation project, they were not completely ordered to stop.

“Ang ipinadala ni DENR na during the time na pino-process namin yong area clearance, huminto muna kayo, yon ang sabi niya. Pero binigyan din kami ng approval na yong perimeter kung saan natitibag yong lupa, sina nila na puwedeng go yan,” he said.

“Pero kahit hindi kami in-order to stop, hihinto na rin kami dahil tinamaan kami ng pandemic. Ang expectation namin makapag pre-selling kami sa share namin, pero dahil sa inabot kami ng pandemic, ang sabi ng mga investor namin ‘teka muna, palipasin muna natin yong pandemic’,” he said.

In a letter to the province on January 21, 2021, the DENR listed several observations regarding the reclamation project, among which was that the indicative site development should clearly state the buffer zone, mini-park development, road side tree planting, conceptual development plan, and land use plan, average depth, boundaries and distance from shoreline, 5-year infrastructure program of the local government unit (LGU), and endorsements and approvals of the affected LGUs.

Mercado said all these had already been complied with; they are just waiting for the DENR to sign the area clearance.

On legal action
Mercado added that if push comes to a shove, meaning legal action will be taken against them by Coron residents, he welcomes it so that both sides can have a dialogue. Coron residents are also gathering signatures to file a petition to investigate the quarrying.

“Hinihintay nga namin yong case build-up nila. Kasi, at least kung mag-file sila ng kaso, mas maganda na, para once and for all, masagot namin sa proper forum para matigil na,” he added.

“Binigyan kami ng DENR ng notice to stop kasi kailangan naming asikasuhin ang area clearance. Pinasa na namin ang mga dokumento two weeks ago, pending na lang ‘yon ng signature ni Secretary Cimatu,” he said.

Mercado also clarified that the quarrying and subsequent reclamation activities have long been approved by both the provincial government and the municipal government of Coron.

Other official documents forwarded by Mercado were the memorandum of agreement (MOA) between 428 Hi-Tech Group and BCT Trading and Construction, another contractor in the reclamation project. BCT also has permits to gather aggregates in the sitios of Lamud and Pali from the DENR – Environmental Management Bureau (EMB).

He also sent Palawan News official documents, such as clearances from the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA), the Philippine Reclamation Authority (PRA), and the joint venture agreement between the construction companies and the provincial government.

The project also received certifications from the Department of Tourism (DOT), the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), and the Department of Energy (DOE). The project is also endorsed, through resolutions, by the Sangguniang Barangay of Barangays 2, 3 and 5, and the Sangguniang Bayan of Coron.

Back in July 2020, the DENR – Community Environment and Natural Resources Office (CENRO) set up a notice of violation for one of the quarry sites in Mt. Dipulao because of lack of clearance, especially with the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD).

Palawan News sought the reactions of Coron mayor Mario Reyes, Jr. and the local DENR office, but both were unavailable for comment.

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