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Philippine quarries under scrutiny after deadly mudflow buries homes

  • When Typhoon Goni, the world’s strongest last year, hit the Philippines in November, it triggered an avalanche of volcanic mud that buried 300 homes, killed 13 people and left three missing in the province of Albay.
  • While such mudflows, known as lahar, are common in regions with high volcanic activity, experts and activists say the impact in Albay was exacerbated by the loose material left by quarrying operations.
  • Quarrying of volcanic ash and debris from the slopes of Albay’s Mount Mayon feeds construction projects across the Philippines and is a key economic driver in the province.
  • But watchdogs say the proliferation of mismanaged quarries is a result of a rarely scrutinized industry that is often under the watch of the local government.

ALBAY, Philippines — When Typhoon Goni made landfall in the Philippines on Nov. 1, 2020, experts predicted disaster.

A day earlier, the national volcanology institute, PHIVOLCS, had warned that heavy rainfall from the storm, known locally as Super Typhoon Rolly, could trigger a flow of lahar: the slurry of mud generated when rainwater mixes with volcanic ash, and which can barrel downslope like a river of concrete.

The prediction proved accurate. After Goni hit, a lahar avalanche coursed down the unstable sides of Mount Mayon, an active volcano, burying 300 houses, killing five people and leaving three missing in the town of Guinobatan in Albay province.

“Despite our preemptive evacuation response, we had casualties because the flood reached parts of the villages that were not flooded before,” Joy Maravillas, Guinobatan’s disaster risk and reduction management head, tells Mongabay.

For many in Albay, about 450 kilometers (280 miles) southeast of Manila, the culprit for the disaster was not just the typhoon: villagers say the rampant and poorly regulated quarrying taking place uphill amplified the devastation caused by the typhoon.

Albay is part of the Bicol region in the southeastern island of Luzon

In an online interview, former Guinobatan mayor Christopher Flores says that “floods are natural in Guinobatan,” and that “there is nothing intrinsically wrong with quarrying.” But he adds that “the [excessive] quarrying activities definitely exacerbated and made the floods more devastating and catastrophic. [Add] to that … the substandard dikes.”

Guinobatan, thanks to its location on the slope of Mayon, lies in the path of the lahar flows. That makes Guinobatan “a potential catch basin during a torrential downpour,” environmental planner Randy Panesa says in a phone interview.

In 2019, 369 permits were issued to 135 quarrying companies in Albay province, according to records from the Philippine government’s Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB). Seventy of the permits were for quarries within Guinobatan’s borders.

Arnold Embestro, a former member of the provincial legislative council, tells Mongabay that the locals’ complaints about kalot na (“hollowed out”) quarries are reasonable. The proliferation of permits allows operators to quarry beyond their designated areas, he says. There are also the illegal operators to consider.

With the spike in quarrying, it becomes difficult to monitor and regulate each operation, Embestro says. What follows will be “excavations without due consideration for protection of embankments,” he adds.

Pyroclastic flows descend the south-eastern flank of Mayon Volcano, Philippines a 1984 eruption. More than 73,000 people evacuated the danger zones as recommended by scientists of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology. Image by C.G. Newhall (derivative work) via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Ettel Tocare, a resident of the lahar-hit village of San Francisco in Guinobatan, says her home was buried in rocks and debris washed down from the quarry sites. “Lives and livelihoods were lost because of a greedy few,” Tocare says. “Everyone involved should pay.”

Activist groups have also supported demands for an independent probe into the incident. “The flow of lahar in the community of Barangay San Francisco in Guinobatan tells a tale of probable mismanagement or even illegal quarrying activities,” Leon Dulce, national coordinator for Kalikasan PNE, an environmental NGO, said in a press release.

Jonas Leones, undersecretary at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said in a local interview that “affected residents may sue the companies for compensation for the damage they have caused.”

A disputed link

By Nov. 2, 2020, President Rodrigo Duterte had ordered an extensive check of all quarrying operations in Albay province. An initial investigation by the MGB office for the Bicol region, of which Albay is a part, revealed that 15 quarry operators were violating their licenses. Nine had mined beyond their designated coverage areas.

An aerial survey of the lahar-affected areas conducted by the Albay Public Safety and Emergency Management Office found no direct link between quarrying and the lahar flows. The DENR also dismissed any such link, concluding that the scale of the disaster was “largely due to natural processes,” following a survey of the area by a task force.

Slope map of Guinobatan town from Mayon volcano

Residents say they still want the quarry operators to be penalized, including those with expired or with no quarry permits from the local government, along with the local officials they blame for failing to do their duties.

On the DENR’s website, MGB director Wilfredo Moncano said the bureau would endorse the initial findings of its Bicol office to the Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) for necessary actions.   These include either a suspension of the violators’ environmental compliance certificate (ECC) or rehabilitation of their quarry areas and a fine. But no such punishments have been imposed to date, more than three months after the avalanche, leaving affected residents increasingly frustrated.

In 2018, Ed Laguerta, the resident volcanologist for PHIVOLCS’s Bicol office at the time, warned that unregulated quarry operations could cause the remobilization of lahar flows. He cited the case of Typhoon Durian in 2006, which triggered a mudflow on Mayon’s slopes that killed 1,500 people and buried several villages in Albay, including in Guinobatan.

Laguerta’s warning came a year after the number of quarry operators in the province jumped to more than 100 from only 25 in 2017, and around the same time that PHIVOLCS proposed the provincial government ban quarrying within the 6-km (4-mi) permanent danger zone (PDZ) around Mayon’s crater. The PDZ is defined as the area where life-threatening dangers like rockfalls or sudden eruptions are deemed to be a permanent threat. The provincial government did not take up the proposal.

Paul Alanis, the current PHIVOLCS Bicol resident volcanologist, said he couldn’t recall the proposal, but added that it makes sense since ideally, that should be the case for all economic activities being carried out on the volcano’s slopes.

Quarry site within the permanent danger zone in Albay, Philippines. Contributed photo by a concerned citizen

“If people see any activities in the PDZ, including the quarry workers that sometimes build temporary quarters, locals would think it’s alright to follow suit,” he said in a phone interview.

Alanis added that his institute’s monitoring technology can detect signs of human activity around Mayon’s danger zone. “However, our current program filters anything that has nothing to do with volcanic activity. And our people are not trained to detect such activities because it is outside our mandate,” he said.

‘Hollowed out’

Quarrying is a major driver of the economy in Albay, where the volcanic ash and debris that has piled up from countless eruptions blankets Mayon’s slopes and riverbanks, providing an easy source of high-grade construction material.

In 2018, operators quarried 3.9 million cubic meters (138 million cubic feet) of volcanic material, valued at nearly 551 million pesos ($11.5 million), according to MGB data obtained by Mongabay. That’s almost seven times more material, and 20 times the value, that they produced in 2015.

In addition to the revenue and jobs that quarrying generates, the material itself is a key ingredient in the construction projects that are central to the Bicol Regional Development Plan, especially in tourism and transportation. Projects under Duterte’s “Build, Build, Build” program also benefit from Albay’s volcanic bounty,  including the nearly 5 billion peso ($104 million) Bicol International Airport, as well as projects in the Visayas region of the central Philippines.

Quarry stockpiles pictured on November 2, 2020 in Daraga, Albay, Philippines. Image by a volunteer rescuer

The industry in Albay has been linked to local politicians; Guinobatan councilor Venerando Padua Jr. obtained four permits in 2019 to quarry on 4 hectares (10 acres) of land in Travesia village, according to records from MGB’s Bicol office.

“Quarry proponents are usually local government or local corporate interests,” Leon Dulce, national coordinator for Kalikasan PNE, an environmental NGO, tells Mongabay in an online interview.

Among the 15 companies reported by the MGB to be in violation of licensing regulations is Sunwest Construction and Development Corporation (SCDC), founded and run by Elizaldy Co, a lawmaker in the Philippine Congress. SCDC holds permits in two separate areas in Albay province: in downtown Legazpi City and in the neighboring town of Daraga.

While officials in Guinobatan have not linked the quarrying activity to the floods, affected residents like Tocare say they want a transparent probe.  Dulce says that just because quarrying faces less scrutiny than mining, it doesn’t mean local governments can be complacent about it. The fact that only one of the 106 quarry operators in Albay has a permit from the DENR, with the rest issued by provincial authorities, underscores the big responsibility local officials have to keep a watch on them, together with the DENR and MGB, Dulce says.

The Philippines’ position in the western Pacific’s typhoon corridor and the seismically active Ring of Fire means the threat of rain-triggered lahar is ever-present. And while typhoons and volcanic eruptions can’t be regulated, activities like quarrying, which can exacerbate the impact of lahar, can, activists say.

Environmental planner Panesa, who hails from Guinobatan, says the income from quarrying is hard to resist. But he adds that understanding when and where to dig, and the amount to quarry, can help save lives while providing jobs for locals as deputized wardens can help with monitoring.

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Banner image of a quarry site within the determined permanent danger zone of the Mayon volcano in Albay, Philippines. Image contributed by a concerned citizen.

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