Coal plants stoke community fears

Inquirer Bureau

August 27, 2021 12:00:00

After the three-day “Welgang Bayan” (People’s Strike) against the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) in June 1985 and the mothballing of the 620-megawatt facility a year later by President Corazon Aquino in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Russia, Julito Velasco thought his fight to defend the environment and the health of his townmates in Morong, the plant site, was over.

Now 74 and a retired government employee, Velasco believes he still has to continue his cause. He speaks in forums and joins protests to prevent the BNPP’s revival, first broached during the term of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and now by the Duterte administration.

But this time, his footprints are deep in another path to block a related toxic threat: coal-fired power plants and the government’s reliance on them as energy source. “Like nuclear plants, coal plants are under the culture of death,” said Velasco, who works with the Coal-Free Bataan Movement (CFBM), echoing a perspective in the encyclical letter “Laudato Si” of Pope Francis.

While many countries are already pivoting away from fossil fuel use, countries in Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, remain on the path of coal expansion. While burning coal is often touted as a cheap source of energy, its impacts on public health and the environment are dire.

Coal-fired power plants are among the major contributors of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide. These emissions are the main driver of climate change, the impacts of which are already felt in extreme weather events and rising sea levels.

Scientists and environmental advocates alike have called for the urgent end to the use of coal and other fossil fuels, shifting instead to renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar and geothermal power.

In Bataan province alone, six coal plants are operating. These are the 690-MW GN Power of Mariveles Energy Center Ltd. and the 668-MW Unit 1 of GN Power Dinginin (testing prior to commercial operation), both in Barangay Alas-asin, Mariveles town; the 140-MW refinery solid fuel fired boiler (RSFFB) Phase 1 of Petron Corp. and the 648-MW SMC Pan Asia by Ingrid 2 Power Corp., both in Barangay Alangan, Limay town; and two plants inside the Petron refinery of San Miguel Corp. (SMC) in Barangay Lamao, Limay.

Coal boom

Five more plants are being built or planned. These are the 44-MW RSFFB Phase 3 inside the Petron refinery in Limay; two plants with a combined capacity of 1,200 MW due in 2022 and 2023 by SMC/Mariveles Power Generation Corp. in Barangay Biaan, Mariveles; a 600-MW complex by Zest Power in Mariveles, and a 300-MW plant by SMC Pan Asia Ingrid 2 Power Corp. in Batangas province. The presence of a Petron oil refinery in Limay in 1961 could have paved the way for companies engaged in fuel and power production to set up base in Bataan. A succession of laws designed Limay, as well as Mariveles, to host such industries.

In 1968, President Ferdinand Marcos issued Proclamation No. 361, which reserved 418 hectares in Limay’s Lamao for industrial purposes. The land was carved out from the 621-ha Lamao Horticultural Experiment Station, which was also declared an industrial reservation.

The next year, Marcos issued Proclamation No. 630, expanding the Lamao industrial estate. In 1976, Presidential Decree No. 949 vested the administration and ownership of the estate to Philippine National Oil Co. and the area later became a petrochemical industrial zone.

In 2009, Mariveles benefited from Republic Act (RA) No. 9728, which converted the Bataan Economic Zone into the Freeport Area of Bataan (FAB).

In 2013, Congress passed RA No. 10516, expanding the use of the Lamao industrial estate for “businesses engaged in energy and energy-related infrastructure project and other gainful economic activities in addition to petrochemical and related industries.” In 2018, RA No. 11453 widened FAB coverage beyond Mariveles. Bane of coal

“Communities were evicted and fishersfolk were prohibited from fishing around plant sites. To give way to plant construction and expansion, old grown trees were cut and vegetable farms destroyed,” CFBM reported, summarizing the slew of problems arising from hosting coal plants.

The daily plant operation, it said, involves “waste spillage on the roads, emission of sickening ashes and odor, and constant troubling noise” that are “not monitored nor mitigated.”

Environmental degradation is also visible in the “decline of fish harvests from the bay, worsened poverty of the residents, water crisis and prevalence of respiratory illnesses and skin diseases associated with polluted environment,” the group said.

Fighting coal plants can be risky.

Months before the murder of Gloria Capitan, a chapter president of CFBM’s Samahan ng Nagkakaisang Mamamayan ng Lucanin in Mariveles on July 1, 2016, she spoke against mining and open storage of coal in her village. The killing is still unsolved.

In some instances, intimidation and threats might come from local officials, policemen or private emissaries, CFBM documentation showed.

Josie de Mesa, a catechist and a retired coordinator of the social action committee of the Diocese of Balanga in Bataan, frowned at the local governments’ attitude toward coal plant projects as “welcoming.” “The residents are promised jobs. But they are hired only for short-term construction works, and that’s that,” she said.

De Mesa said the coal plants in Mariveles had also encroached on the ancestral lands of the Aeta people.

For CBFM spokesperson Alvin Pura, public consultations were a “farce” because the “people’s actual adverse experiences about living near coal plants are ignored or only a few are made to attend these” meetings.

“We only get to know about the consultations through the website of the Environmental Management Bureau,” he said.

Masinloc’s experience

In neighboring Zambales province, the coal plant in the coastal town of Masinloc, about 250 kilometers northwest of Metro Manila, and considered one of the country’s oldest in the power industry, was built despite vehement opposition from local communities, especially the village of Bani, due to fear that it would endanger the environment and their health.

The Masinloc Power Plant (MPP) was put up by the government in the late 1990s and operated by National Power Corp. (Napocor) through a US$2-million loan from Asian Development Bank (ADB) and Export-Import Bank of Japan. It occupies 11 ha of reclaimed land and its two units produce a combined capacity of 600 MW for consumers in Luzon.

While plant construction was underway, environmentalists, including farmers and fishermen, staged protest actions to voice out fears that it would pollute the air and its wastewater would contaminate the bay area and kill the local fishing industry.

Because of the opposition, the project was delayed for four years, but it finally pushed through in 1998 after President Fidel V. Ramos, using emergency powers during a bleak power supply situation, gave the go-signal. Close to 200 families or 1,000 individuals were displaced, according to the local government.

Validating their fears, environmentalists reported that the Masinloc plant had been spewing 385,000 tons of ash yearly and massive amounts of carbon dioxide, putting people’s health at grave risk.

In 2008, the plant was sold by Napocor to the US-based AES Corp. following the passage of the Electric Power Industry Reform Act. It was touted as the first privatized power plant in the country and made AES the largest foreign investor in the country’s power sector.

Before the acquisition, however, the MPP had already deteriorated. ADB reported that the plant’s operating performance had “declined” since 2001, citing “inadequate maintenance and insufficient capital investments in anticipation of the planned privatization.”

AES said it had to spend more than US$1 billion to restore the facility and double its capacity by building another 300-MW unit by 2015 and a 300-MW plant by 2018.

In March 2018, the San Miguel group, through SMC Global Power Holdings, took full ownership of the Masinloc facility for $1.9 billion.

La Union’s fight

Though environmental activists failed to stop the operation of coal plants in Bataan and Zambales, they continue to rally communities against future mega coal-fired plants, such as the proposed 670-MW project in La Union province.

The plant of Global Luzon Energy Development Corp., a subsidiary of Global Business Power Corp. (GBPC) under the Metro Pacific Group, would be built on a 41-ha property hugging the seaside villages of Carisquis and Nalvo Sur in Luna town.

“Risky, polluting and destructive” was how it was described by protesting groups, including the community-based Koalisyon Isalbar ti Pintas ti La Union (Coalition to Save the Beauty of La Union or CSBLU), the Diocese of La Union, the Integrated Bar of the Philippines La Union Chapter, and the association of surfers and of resort owners in the province.

The proposed plant site is near beach resorts, as well as the 3-km stretch of pebble shore where the 400-year-old Spanish “baluarte” (watchtower) is found, said Crisanto Palabay, the chair of CSBLU.

Currently, the project is stalled, but its proponents were already granted an environmental compliance certificate (ECC) by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources on Oct. 4, 2018.

“The threat is still there,” said Palabay. “If the proponents decide to resume the project, they still can. We have to be vigilant.”

CSBLU and the other groups had repeatedly written to the DENR seeking to revoke the ECC for alleged violations committed by the proponents, including the absence of an environment impact study.

There was no reply from the agency, Palabay said. “We have exhausted all administrative means, but nothing has come out of our efforts. So we will just file a case against the DENR,” he said in an interview earlier this month.

Luna officials supporting the coal plant, led by former mayor Victor Marvin Marron, claimed that the bigger population of the town had stayed away from the protest activities and that the project would benefit Luna as part of the government’s massive infrastructure programs.

In an interview last week, Marron said that during its construction, the plant would need at least 2,500 workers and that local residents would be given priority in the hiring. Once the plant starts operations, it will need 300 personnel, he said.

He also believed that measures would be implemented to ensure that the plant’s operations will not affect marine life and agriculture.

Marron ran for vice mayor and lost in the 2019 local elections but the winning mayor, Rachel Pinzon, was his running mate and possibly has the same stand as his.

Palabay claimed that most of the residents who are pro-coal plant were cash aid beneficiaries under the government’s Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) and were “pressured to support the plant.”

CSBLU rued that while the majority of the people living in villages around the project site support the project, “the views of [those in] ... other nearby villages that would be affected by nitrous dioxide from the plant were excluded or ignored.”

Outside Luna, at least three towns have banned coal-fired power plants and have stood up against the Luna project.

The surfing town of San Juan was the first in La Union to close its doors to coal plants on March 11, 2019, citing the need to preserve biodiversity and protect the health of residents.

Aringay followed in the same month, basically adopting San Juan’s resolution. While Luna is 60 km away from the two towns, Aringay officials said they share the same coastline.

San Gabriel passed a resolution on July 15, 2019, opposing the project, declaring it as a threat to their shared environment, livelihood and well-being of their constituents.

Quezon’s plant construction

In Quezon province, construction of a 1,200-MW coalfired plant on an 80-ha land in the village of Villa Ibaba, Atimonan town, is ongoing amid protests from the Diocese of Lucena and environmentalist groups.

Critics argued that the facility would only add to environmental degradation already suffered by the province with its existing coal-fired plants.

Quezon is host to the 1,500MW plant in Mauban town facing the Pacific Ocean and the 420-MW and 735-MW plants of TeaM Energy Corp. and Aboitiz Power Corp. in Pagbilao town facing the Tayabas Bay.

Quezon Gov. Danilo Suarez has maintained that “as long as the power plants in the province will be using ultra-supercritical technology, there will be no problem.”

According to the Brussels-based nonprofit GreenFacts Initiative, an ultra-supercritical power plant operates at temperatures and pressures above the critical boiling point of water, where there is no difference between water gas and liquid water.

GreenFacts—whose mission is to provide nonexperts with unbiased, factual content of complex scientific consensus reports on health and the environment— said this would make such power plants more efficient than conventional coal-fired plants.

The proponent of the Atimonan power plant boasted that it is set to use such technology in its operation. The government has also approved the project.

“Site preparations is ongoing,” an official of Atimonan One Energy (A1E), a subsidiary of Meralco Powergen Corp.’s, disclosed to the Inquirer on Aug. 13.

The official, who asked not to be named for lack of authority to speak to the media, said the project currently employs more than 500 local residents doing a variety of jobs, such as building drainage around the site.

“We still need to build power plants utilizing high efficiency, low emissions technology to complement renewable power plants because we need stable and reliable supply of baseload power, especially now that we’re experiencing ‘yellow and red alerts’ during the summer months,” the official said.

Anticoal groups are not about to give up. “We will continue our zealous opposition against all coal-fired power plants. We will conduct all forms of protest to bring our message across,” said Jay Lim, project officer of Tanggol Kalikasan, a public interest law office based in the provincial capital of Lucena City.

Lim called on all national and local candidates in the next elections to declare their stand on coal-fired power plants. “Yes to renewable energy, no to coal! And those who will not join us in the battle will invite the wrath of millions of anticoal plant advocates on election day,” he warned.

Palawan crusade

In Palawan province, a civil society group has relentlessly drummed up support to stop the construction of a 15-MW coal plant project in the southern town of Narra. The project of DMCI Power Corp. received a go-ahead signal from the DENR in June 2018 and the backing of local officials for its “clean” technology.

“There’s no such thing as clean coal. There are many other alternative sources of energy that we should instead pay attention to,” said Renz Tenorio, a convenor of the No To Coal Movement.

On July 31, around 70 people held an interfaith rally at a church in Narra to pray for the environment and call for the government’s “enlightenment” to heed their demands.

Suspended Mayor Gerandy Danao sent a video message of support to them, saying the damage that a coal plant would wrought on the environment far outweighed the benefits it could provide to the community, and that local officials should instead give priority to farm-tomarket roads, livelihood, food sufficiency and public health.

Danao attributed his suspension by the provincial government since September 2020 to his anticoal position.

The town’s acting mayor, Crispin Lumba Jr., declined to comment on the protest and instead asked residents to let the project run its course, “subject to stringent environmental compliance.”

Under the ECC granted for the project, DMCI Power must set up a continuous emission monitoring system for real-time evaluation of air discharges. It should also carry out social development and management programs for affected communities in the village of Bato-Bato (formerly San Isidro), and ensure compliance with all existing environmental laws, such as the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.

Mindanao projects

In Mindanao, two coal-fired power plants were able to operate despite stiff opposition from communities—the 300-MW Therma South Inc. in Santa Cruz, Davao del Sur province, owned by Aboitiz Power; and the 552-MW GN Power Kauswagan in Kauswagan, Lanao del Norte province, owned by GN Power Ltd.

The 250-MW Pulangi V hydropower plant along the Pulangi River in Bukidnon province has been stalled because it would submerge the villages of indigenous peoples, especially their burial grounds and farms.

Also facing resistance from Maranao communities is the planned 240-MW Agus 3 hydropower plant along the Agus River, from Saguiaran, Lanao del Sur province to Pantar and Baloi towns in Lanao del Norte. The project could inundate Maranao farms.

In Ozamis City, the 300-MW coal project of the Avesco group’s Ozamiz Power Generation Inc. has failed to take off because of widespread community opposition.