The wind in Lamao carries with it a certain smell of sulfur and an amount of ash that later covers the road. It is like New Year’s Eve, except that there are no fireworks and certainly nothing to celebrate. This is everyday life for the barangay [community] of 18,000 in Bataan, in the northern part of the Philippines.
Petron Corporation built the coal-fired power plant in Lamao, which has been in operation for two years. San Miguel Corporation through its subsidiary SMC Global Power Holdings Corp. has been building other coal-fired power plants in the area which are set to be online by 2016 and 2017. More expansions are eyed as Ramon Ang, president of San Miguel, has been openly aggressive in building coal-fired power plants in Bataan and other parts of the country.
These powerplants, on the main island of Luzon, represent a conundrum for the government in Manila. Despite the threat of climate chance and a public commitment to renewable energy in the face of more intense storms and rising sea waters, the government is building coal-fired powerplants at a feverish pace. In June, energy officials issued environmental compliance certificates for 21 new coal-fired plants to meet the country’s burgeoning energy needs. According to a 2014 Greenpeace report, at least 45 new coal-fired plants are to become operational by 2020, increasing carbon dioxide emissions by 64.4 million to 79.8 million tonnes a year.
Despite the ravages of Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda, which many climate experts say took its superhuman strength from the warming climate, and despite the pleas of Philippine climate officials in international forums, President Benigno S. Aquino appears to have little understanding or sympathy. In his 2013State of the Nation Address, he said: “Did they happen to mention that renewable energy is also more expensive—from the cost of building the plants to the eventual price of energy? Did they mention that it cannot provide the baseload—the capacity required to make sure brownouts do not occur? If you put up a wind-powered plant, what do you do when there is no wind? If you put up a solar plant, what do you when the sky is cloudy?”
According to Earthjustice, coal ash from burning coal in power plants is toxic and can cause cancer, respiratory illness, neurological damage, and developmental problems. The toxic level of coal ash which mostly come from arsenic, mercury, lead, and chromium, also poison drinking water sources. In fact, a percentage of the population has acquired respiratory problems and water has recently been contaminated.
Some 8 kilometers away from Lamao, Barangay Lucanin in Mariveles faces the same hazards: the sea, their source of livelihood, has been contaminated with coal ash, and residents have acquired skin diseases. According to Derek Cabe of the Nuclear Free Bataan Movement, coal ash waste can reach a 40 kilometer radius. But coal ash in the area isn’t only brought by the wind, Petron Corporation also dumps their coal ash waste in the area, which the company later turns into cement. Lucanin has seen the effects of this waste as the community experiences high morbidity of upper respiratory diseases.
But ash fall is just the tip of the iceberg. Residents of Lamao have been facing violence and harassment amidst the fight against their eviction from their own land to accommodate the new coal-fired power plants by SMC. The community has been up in arms, especially with 110 families facing eviction— but not without cost.
John*, an officer of the Federation of Lamao Concerned Citizens, Inc., said that on Feb, 21, 2014, members of the Merit Security Agency came to the site of where he buys and sells scrap materials, armed with, and started destroying his storage space. Even prior to this, Ana*, another resident of Lamao,was harassed by security guards of the Philippine National Oil Company, also from the same security agency.
Residents of Lamao are no longer permitted to renovate, improve, or repair their homes. According to national oil company, they will be demolished in preparation for the multiple coal-fired power plants which will be built by SMC. James* says that Merit Security Agency has put up check points, inspecting passersby for construction materials. In addition to checkpoints, five guards are on roving duty daily, checking to see if any of the residents have been doing home improvements. The guards have already destroyed numerous houses, the residents say.
Jana* started rebuilding her small rental space in Lamao. It cost her PHP3,000 [USE$65], which she gave to two officials of the security agency, one a commander named Ignacio, commander of the security agency, and second named Miranda to allow her to safely build her space. But in February 2014, she was met with harassment when Ignacio was replaced by a new official named Carag who ordered her place to be demolished. With her husband out of the country and for fear of retaliation, Jana has filed no cases against anyone.
Land disputes between the national oil company and the residents of Lamao have been ongoing for some time. According to the residents, the area of Lamao was awarded to them by President Ramon Magsaysay in the 1950s. However, the government alleges that during the presidency of Ferdinand Marcos, who created the national oil company to respond to continuing energy crises, Lamao was awarded to the oil company, which has since claimed the area.
The number of human rights violations appears to be expanding at the same rate as the expansion plans of coal-fired power plants in the area. While residents have complained about health and water hazards, the oil company has offered to move them to cleaner areas rather than shutting down or cleaning the coal power plant which has affected the community. Although the company has offered a relocation site, as with all relocation sites in the Philippines, it is far from their livelihood and without access to employment.
The belief that coal is cheap has been accepted but sadly, its real costs — health hazards, damage to agriculture and fisheries, water contamination, environmental damage, and land grabbing, all of which are human rights violations — are not calculated. The Lamao community has been asking the government to clean up the environmental hazards and toxic wastes from the Petron coal-fired power plant. They have also asked the government to allow them to stay on the land that was awarded to them and their families by Magsaysay.
The residents are going against big corporations. What can the government do? Ramon Ang “is very bold. He builds plants even without offtake and financial closing. We should have more of his kind,” said Jericho Petilla, secretary of the Department of Energy (DOE). So the wind blows again and more coal ash covers the streets of Lamao, Limay, Bataan.
*Names were changed for the safety of the people involved. This article was written with the help of Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP), Kilusan Bataan, Federation of Lamao Concerned Citizens, Inc. (FLACCI), and Nuclear Free Bataan Movement (NFBM). Photos from Kilusan Bataan and NFBM.
This article was originally published at Asia Sentinel.