Marcopper Mining Disaster – 1996

In 1969 the Marcopper Mining Corporation began open-cut mining at Mount Tapian on Marinduque Island in the Philippines. Marinduque is a poor region and most inhabitants rely on agriculture and fishing for their livelihoods. Unhappily, the mining operation caused pollution of the waterways and deaths from poisoning in the population.

By 1990 Mount Tapian was worked out and a new site opened nearby. A tunnel leading from the old mine to the Boac River was sealed and the resulting pit took the waste from the new San Antonio copper mine. At the same time a dam was built in the Mogpog River in case the Tapian pit was not sufficiently large. People soon noticed that waste was seeping into the river and poisoning the fish. In 1993 the dam collapsed, polluting farmland and killing two children.

On March 24 1996 the seal of the pit tunnel broke, releasing millions of tons of waste into the Boac River. The effect was dramatic: flash floods inundated whole villages with polluted water up to 2 m (6 ft) deep, fields were drowned, drinking water was contaminated, and 20 villages had to be evacuated. The Boac River was declared dead.

Although there was severe contamination, Marcopper denied that its waste was toxic. A UN mission declared the river system to be an environmental disaster, and the communities near the mouth of the river to be significantly affected. Canadian mining company Placer Dome, who owned 40 per cent of Marinduque’s mines, pledged to clean up the river. However, they too denied responsibility, selling out the following year after making a token contribution towards the rebuilding of houses and infrastructure repairs. They argued that all remaining problems were Marcopper’s responsibility – but Marcopper went bankrupt.

When: March 24 1996

Where: Boac River region of Marinduque Island, The Philippines

Death toll: No one died as a result of the flooding on the day of the disaster, but subsequently many villagers, especially children, presented with toxic-waste related illnesses, many of which proved fatal.

You should know: A special fund was set up to compensate thousands of villagers for the loss of their land, homes and livestock. Most have received nothing. The British Columbian Committee for Human Rights in the Philippines called Placer Dome’s position ‘obscene’ after the company declared profits of Can$31 million for the first quarter of 2005. Local residents were given roughly Can$22 in compensation for the death of a child.

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