Ipilan Nickel Corporation cuts down over 50,000 trees and allegedly encroached Brooke's Point watershed that supplies over 20,000 residents in six barangays. (File photo courtesy of DENR)

[UPDATED] The Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD) on Thursday revoked its earlier decision denying controversial mining firm Ipilan Nickel Corporation (INC) a Strategic Environmental Plan (SEP) Clearance.

The decision was a reversal from the Council’s earlier rejection of the mining project’s application in Brooke’s Point. The PCSD said its decision was in line with Malacanang’s latest policy pronouncements to favor mining projects.

“The policy direction of the national government is to open it up kasi wala na raw pera. Mining is one of the industries that actually made money this year and last year, so the national government is really really promoting the industry,”  Teodoro Jose Matta, executive director of PCSD, told Palawan News.

“Approval in principle”
Matta qualified the Council’s decision as an “approval in principle”. He explained that the actual SEP clearance will be issued only upon compliance by the company of certain conditions including a Mayor’s Permit and validation by the PCSD Staff that planned mining operations will not conflict with the so-called ECAN zoning classification of the municipality.

He also said that their earlier decision denying the company SEP Clearance application was made “without due process.”

“The 2017 order ng PCSD cancelling it, walang due process. Unilaterally, kinansel natin as a matter of policy. The proposal was to reinstate the SEP clearance, provided that we will not issue it unless certain conditions are met. So in principle lang ang approval ng SEP clearance,” Matta said.

In July 2017, PCSD revoked INC’s SEP clearance, No. MODP-122110-001, citing that it was not in accordance with the environmentally critical area’s network (ECAN) map which was approved in 2006.

However, Matta said that there had been an expansion in ECAN zoning which was approved in 2018.

Matta sought to dispel criticisms against the PCSD for changing its stance on the mining project, stating that its SEP clearance was not automatically granted.

“Hindi naman unqualified na binigay ang SEP clearance. The safeguards of RA 7611 are still in place. Magtiwala sila sa batas, magtiwala sila amin,” Matta said.

“There are several conditions that must be met. One, they should acquire a mayor’s permit. Two, they should have the endorsement of the ECAN board and the Sangguniang Bayan. Three, the PCSD staff should be able to identify portions of the MPSA, if any, fall under the core zone restricted zone, the watershed, or the protected area,” he added.

Anti-mining setback
The PCSD turnaround was the latest setback suffered by anti-mining advocates in Brooke’s Point led by the town’s mayor, Mary Jean Feliciano, campaigning against the mining project.

Feliciano was suspended in late July by the Sandiganbayan on account of a complaint filed against her by INC when, as town mayor in 2018, she led the demolition of company structures after its mining claims lapsed and the company was facing charges for illegal cutting of trees.

Feliciano, in a phone interview with Palawan News, did not comment at length on the decision of the PCSD, but stated that she was “very disappointed.”

The INC has yet to issue a statement about the latest PCSD action.

“The company has yet to receive any official notice about the matter so we cannot issue any statements as of now,” the company stated in its email reply to Palawan News.

DENR turnaround
Eriberto Saños, Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office (PENRO) chief, who was also present in the board meeting according to Matta, confirmed that the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) had also reinstated INC’s environmental compliance certificate (ECC), and mineral production sharing agreement (MPSA) from the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB).

“ECC and MPSA renewed and reinstated without SEP clearance. PENRO Eriberto Sanos ang sabi dati ng meron na-cancel lang dahil sa representations ni Mayor Jean Feliciano sa DENR. When the investigation was made, hindi na-substantiate ng munisipyo  lahat. So kinailangan nilang ibalik. Those were the words of PENRO Sanos,” Matta said.

No response from Brooke’s Point
Acting mayor of Brooke’s Point Georjalyn Joy Quiachon-Abarca who succeeded Feliciano did not reply when asked if her office will issue a mayor’s permit.

INC is a subsidiary of Global Ferronickel Holdings, the country’s second-largest nickel producer. Its mine site is around 2,400 hectares that encompassed four villages in Brooke’s Point, expecting an annual production rate of about 1.538 million wet metric tons (WMT) from the project. (with reports from Celeste Anna Formoso and Ruil Alabi)