Energy advocates hit DENR for setting the bar low in environmental protection

Photo by Al Jazeera.

An environmental think-tank on Monday slammed the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) for its apparent lack of ambition in upholding environmental protection in the country.

The Center for Energy, Ecology, and Development (CEED) called on the DENR not to haughtily pat themselves on the back for their work in the past year, citing DENR Chief Roy Cimatu’s New Year’s Call statement that for the year 2020, he is “confident that we will again prove to the Filipino people that indeed there is a Department that takes care of their environment and natural resources.”

The comment comes in light of the recent panic brought about by the eruption of Taal Volcano.

With residents in Batangas, surrounding provinces, and Metro Manila hoarding as many face masks as they could find in the face of dangerous pollution brought by a natural disaster, “Taal Volcano’s eruption and the public health panic that accompanied it should serve as a nudge to DENR not to place itself on too high a pedestal,” said Gerry Arances, Executive Director of CEED.

“DENR seems to think that they have proven themselves triumphant in performing their mandate, but there is an elephant in the room which the Department can’t expect Filipinos not to point out – the role they played in the proliferation of dirty industries, especially coal facilities, that pollute the environment and threaten the health of the Filipino public,” he said.

“In the past week, we saw how mere hours of spewed pollutants brought much trepidation and rightful concern especially for the welfare of populations with sensitive health in the areas affected by the volcanic ashfall,” said Veronica Cabe of the Coal-Free Bataan Movement (CFBM).

“The ash fall experienced by CALABARZON, Metro Manila, and surrounding provinces is a constant reality for coal-affected residents across the country, such as in the communities of Limay and Mariveles in Bataan, who regularly breathe contaminated air as if a volcano was erupting in their backyard every single day,” she said.

As compared to the ash fall of Taal consisting mostly of PM 10 and sulfur dioxide, ash fall from coal plants is comprised of PM 2.5, a particle more lethal than PM 10, and other toxic materials and carcinogenic substances such as mercury and arsenic.

“For communities living near the twenty-nine coal-fired power plants currently operating in the Philippines, particulate matter, toxic gas, and pollutants float in the air on a daily basis and these  already claimed lives among many of the Filipino people,” stressed Ian Rivera, National Coordinator of the Philippine Movement for Climate Justice (PMCJ).

“Many studies stressing that the proliferation of coal plants in the country is a public health concern have cast doubts on DENR’s claim that it did its best the past year to ensure that the people breathe clean air. This smacks of hypocrisy on the part of Secretary Cimatu when his department called for the public to be vigilant against hazardous gases spewed by Taal when in reality DENR is involved in the proliferation of coal plants in the Philippines.” Rivera added.

In 2017, PMCJ led CEED and other civil society organizations and representatives of coal-affected communities in filing a petition against the DENR for its failing to do its duty under the Clean Air Act to curb air pollution and to penalize polluting coal-fired power plants not equipped with monitoring systems, and demanding it to halt issuing clearances for new coal projects.

While the Department’s milestones such as the rehabilitation of Manila Bay must be acknowledged, Aaron Pedrosa, Head of the Energy Working Group of PMCJ and Secretary-General of Sanlakas, asserted that “air pollution is a problem the DENR simply cannot wash its hands off.”

“As the DENR stalls in taking concrete steps to hold coal proponents accountable for the poison they set loose in our air, and as they continue recklessly enabling new coal to dirty our atmosphere by providing permits needed by coal companies, the DENR in effect violates the rights of Filipinos to breathe clean air,” said Pedrosa.

The most recent issuance of an Environmental Compliance Certificate by the DENR to a coal-fired power plant project in August last year is particularly despicable, CEED said, as it threatens to mar the beauty of Palawan, what is known to be the country’s last frontier in terms of its rich biodiversity, and severely endangers the communities and several endemic species residing there with pollution brought by coal transport and burning.

“If this is what the DENR means by having done their ‘best’ to preserve the environment, then they are setting the bar way too low,” stressed Arances.

Citing a 2016 Harvard University study on coal pollution which revealed that at least 2,400 Filipinos are killed each year due to emissions from coal-fired power plants, Arances challenged the DENR to “rethink their standards before proudly assessing themselves as successful.”

“The damaged lungs, skin diseases, and other health problems rampant in coal-affected communities are proof enough that much work needs to be done by the DENR, and that has to begin with penalizing violators and promoting a shift instead to clean energy sources,” said Arances.