In the Middle of a Pandemic, a Battle to Stop a Coal Plant in Palawan

A coal power fire station
Philstar.com
,
Palawan, Philippines

In the Middle of a Pandemic, a Battle to Stop a Coal Plant in Palawan

As the Philippines chose a COVID-19 pandemic stimulus with no emphasis whatsoever on environment and sustainability, the battle to stop the construction of DMCI’s coal plant in Narra, Palawan continues for Teofilo Tredez and his allies.

If anything, the construction of the new coal plant shows how low the green recovery is in the Philippines’ priority list.

In the past years, there have been frequent brownouts in Palawan especially during dry season when demand for power is high. It is a problem that, local public officials who have cleared DMCI Power’s project said, would be solved by the upcoming coal plant in Narra. Currently, Palawan meets its energy requirements through an off-grid system that relies on diesel and bunker plants.

But Tredez and others who have joined him in suing DMCI were not convinced. At the heart of their case against the company is their fear over the project’s impact on the environment, livelihood and health of Narra’s 77,948 residents and people in nearby towns.

Palawan has a local energy plan, the first of its kind in the country, and it does not count coal as an answer to the island province’s power needs.

But beyond energy and public health, Tredez and the petitioners believe the true purpose of DMCI’s project was to energize the company’s upcoming ventures in Palawan that, they said, are just as environmentally destructive as the controversial coal plant.

A fight that predates the pandemic

At the height of the pandemic in October 2020, Tredez and seven others filed a 61-page plea before the Regional Trial Court of Palawan and Puerto Princesa to block the construction of DMCI’s coal plant.

Narra residents Merlyn Lagan, Juan Asis, Ramilito Dacasin, Selvestra Dadizon, Oliver Tredez and Renato Tundan joined Tredez in filing the lawsuit. Dadizon is a representative of the Tagbanua Indigenous group, one of the oldest ethnic groups in the country residing mainly in central and north Palawan.

The Center for Energy, Environment and Development Inc. (CEED), a research institution that advocates for energy democracy and ecological integrity, is also among the petitioners.

Two men talk to the camera
Teofilo Tredez, a 55-year-old para-enforcer, is again facing a new battle against a coal project in Narra, Palawan / Credit: Deejae Dumlao.

As it is, the battle to stop the coal started even before the pandemic erupted. It began in 2012 when Palawan Electric Cooperative (Paleco), the main power distributor on the island province, executed a power supply agreement (PSA) with DMCI Power, which committed to provide a guaranteed dependable capacity of 25 megawatts.

DMCI bagged the PSA during a competitive bidding launched by Paleco in a bid to tackle the island’s power woes. To fulfill its PSA with Paleco, DMCI planned to generate the power from two sources. The first one is a 27-megawatt diesel power plant with a proposed generation rate of P12.80 per kilowatt hour. It was targeted to start operation by September 2013.

The other source is the project in question—a 15-megawatt coal-fired power plant with a proposed generation rate of P9.38 per kilowatt hour. DMCI had hoped to begin commercial operations of the coal plant by October 2014, but strong opposition to the plan had stalled the project for seven years.

DMCI tried several times to move locations for this coal plant. First in Barangay Panacan in Narra, where the company’s attempt in 2013 failed following a loud and organized opposition, including those from residents of Puerto Princesa and other municipalities who also feared that the coal project could send the natural environment into a state of slow death.

That same year, DMCI later moved to Aborlan, a neighboring municipality, but was also met with opposition from residents and civil society groups that held an assembly, prayer rallies, walk-for-a-cause, and a concert to show their displeasure. The company nearly succeeded there after local officials endorsed the project. But a regional trial court, acting on a class suit filed by some Aborlan residents, put the project in limbo by issuing a Temporary Environment Order (TEPO) that prevented local government officials from acting on DMCI’s application for a Strategic Environmental Plan (SEP) clearance until the case is decided.

The SEP clearance is a document issued by the Palawan Council For Sustainable Development (PCSDS), a body that was established in 1992 by the SEP law which is purposefully designed for the province of Palawan. The clearance is one of the requirements of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) before the issuance of an Environmental Compliance Certificate (ECC) for any development projects in Palawan.

As the plan was stalled in Aborlan, DMCI decided to return to Narra to relocate the project in 2015, but in a different barangay (administrative district) called Bato-Bato. This time, the company secured an SEP clearance from the PCSDS for the coal project, a development that triggered angry responses from more than 6,000 people who have signed a letter urging then-Environment Secretary Ramon Jesus Paje to deny DMCI’s application for an ECC. The DENR at the time assured the petitioners that their signatures “will not be a waste”.

In July 2019, the residents and groups that have long opposed the coal project found out that DMCI was already granted an ECC under the watch of then-Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu. The project was exempted from the ban on new coal projects because it already secured an ECC prior to the government’s announcement in 2020.

Tredez told Philstar.com that the news came as a surprise to him and the other petitioners, claiming that they were not made part of any public consultation or hearing for the coal project.

“It was like they (DMCI and DENR) snuck behind our back,” Tredez said.

Construction starts

Apart from DMCI, others accused in the case were the DENR’s environmental management bureau for Region IV-B, the PCSD, and former Narra Mayor Crispin Lumba.

Similar to the case filed in Aborlan, Tredez and others asked the court to issue a TEPO against DMCI’s project. They were hoping that the TEPO would be converted into a permanent Environment Protection Order or EPO.

The petitioners secured a 72-hour TEPO from the court, but their plea to have it extended to prevent DMCI from starting any construction activities but eventually, the court denied their motion. At the same time, DMCI was able to swiftly secure the necessary permits, thanks to a 2017 Executive Order (EO) by President Rodrigo Duterte that established a simplified approval process for “energy projects of national significance”.

Today, the coal plant in Narra is taking shape at a former stockyard of Narra Nickel Mining and Development Corp. The facility is expected to go online by the second quarter of 2023.

A coal power station
DMCI is spending about P2.7 billion to construct the coal-fired power plant / Credit: Deejae Dumlao.

The project site is facing the Sulu sea, and people interviewed by Philstar.com said some residents that lived near the shore and made a living out of fishing and raising lobsters had been paid to move elsewhere. Residents also said there have been attempts by some local officials to stifle any public opposition to the project through harassment.

Lara (not her real name) was fully aware of the impact of DMCI’s coal plant once it starts running. She knows this because her husband used to be a fisherman. 

“There was a time I googled the impacts, first that showed was the smoke. How much more will the ash affect us?" she said.

We’re very much aware,” she said. “And the waste could flow to the seas. Fisherfolk will suffer. The majority of residents here are fishermen.”

“Think about this, the plant will be open forever. The air you breathe when you wake up first thing in the morning will come from the plant. The fact remains. Anyone who says otherwise should look at studies that prove this will not be beneficial,” Lara added.

A house made of wood
An abandoned house near the site of coal project, which is facing the Sulu sea. People interviewed by Philstar.com said some residents that lived near the shore and made a living out of fishing and raising lobsters had been paid to move elsewhere / Credit: Deejae Dumlao.

Coal vs Hydro

Apart from a TEPO and an EPO, Tredez and other petitioners also prayed for the court to issue a Writ of Continuing Mandamus to compel DENR and PCSDS to revisit and review DMCI’s application for an SEP clearance and ECC. 

The petitioners argued that DMCI failed to conduct a public scoping and public hearing for the coal project. There was a consultation for the coal project held on April 24, 2015, but the petitioners said the public were not given copies of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports, which are requirements when applying for an ECC. They also claimed that the people were "not sufficiently informed" if the consultation at the time was a public scoping or public hearing for purposes of complying with EIA processes. Petitioners Dadizon and Dacasin said they were among those who were not invited to the consultation.

Philippine laws are explicit on the conduct of environmental assessment tests if anyone wants to build superstructure that could potentially harm the environment. Grizelda Mayo Anda, lead counsel of the suit filed against DMCI, said the case was built because the Consunji-led firm allegedly did not consult stakeholders. 

“That’s the nature of the case: It’s an environmental case. Citizens want a new EIA (environmental impact assessment) and want the project stopped while a new assessment is conducted. The argument is that they [DMCI] did not comply with consultation requirements,” Anda told Philstar.com in an interview at the office of Environmental Legal Assistance Center (ELAC) Inc. in Puerto Princesa.

A woman sits behind a desk in an office
Grizelda Mayo Anda, lead counsel of the suit filed against DMCI / Credit: Deejae Dumlao.

The petitioners also claimed that DMCI failed to provide “clear, science- and evidence-based projections” of the coal project’s impact. “Instead, it provided vague and general statements on likely impacts,” the petition reads.

Lastly, the petitioners claimed that DMCI did not “consider diligently and select cleaner and more affordable renewable energy technologies as feasible alternatives.” They argued that the Palawan Island Power Development Plan 2014-2035 (PIPDP), the first local energy plan in the Philippines, made it clear that coal “would not result in a least-cost mix for Palawan”. The PIPDP adds: “The best combination (for Palawan) would be the utilization of hydro resources as baseload, biomass resources as intermediate load, and diesel as peaking load.”

Specifically, the PIPDP, which was crafted from 2013 to 2015, recommends that the “best strategy” is for Paleco to “displace” its existing PSAs with power producers, including the supply deal involving DMCI’s coal project, in favor of hydroelectric power. The PIPDP identified 49 possible sites across Palawan for potential hydro projects. These potential hydro facilities have an estimated combined capacity of 182,471 kilowatts.

In an e-mailed response to questions from Philstar.com, a representative from DMCI defended the project, saying that “over a span of seven years, DMCI Power attended/conducted 13 stakeholder consultations and 30 information and education campaigns.”

DMCI said: As such, the 15MW thermal plant was designed to comply with the environmental requirements of the Philippine Clean Air Act and Philippine Clean Water Act. DMCI Power is also investing in pollution control devices such as an electrostatic precipitator and limestone feeding device to ensure that the plant would meet the emission limits for particulates and sulfur oxides (SOx).  A wastewater treatment plant will also be installed to treat industrial and domestic wastewater to comply with the effluent standards.

Finally, it is important to note that the national government, through DOE (Department of Energy), certified the 15MW thermal plant as an Energy Project of National Significance in line with then President Duterte’s call to stabilize the power supply in Palawan.

Mining links?

According to petitioner CEED, DMCI has a “poor track record of depending reliable electricity in the province” because it failed to comply with its 25-megawatt guaranteed dependable capacity under its PSA with Paleco. Such a failure was exposed at a Senate inquiry into Palawan’s energy situation in 2017, the year consumers in the Paleco-covered areas experienced a maximum of 18 hours of power interruption, with a frequency of at least nine times a month.

This failure, the CEED said, should be enough basis for the rejection of its proposed coal project.

But beyond DMCI’s capability to deliver on its commitments, residents who spoke to Philstar.com believe the purpose of the coal plant was not to solve Palawan’s power woes, but to energize the company’s existing and upcoming mining projects. This, after Duterte lifted a ban on open-pit mining that was placed by the late Environment Secretary Gina Lopez.

Berong Nickel Corp. (BNC), a subsidiary of DMCI Mining Corp., has been a miner in Palawan since 2007. A representative from DMCI told Philstar.com that BNC is in the process of securing the needed permits to open up new mines in the province. 

“I think DMCI is hellbent on pushing back because they have mining interest there,” Anda, the lawyer in the case against DMCI, said.

So far, the fight against DMCI's project remains in limbo after the judge previously assigned to the case died during the pandemic. The case has yet to be raffled off to a new judge as of reporting, but Anda hopes that the Supreme Court is informed of the circumstances of the case. Under the rules, lawsuits concerning the environment need to be resolved in two years. 

As the legal battle to stop the coal project drags on, Tredez and his peers thought it best that for them to have a voice in back rooms where decisions are made, they needed to run for public office. However, they were handed a crushing defeat in the May 2022 polls for municipal council.

For now, Tredez and others are pinning their hopes on Gerandy Danao, the mayor of Narra who secured an election victory. In a Facebook post days before the May polls, Danao, a goat farmer who ended a local political dynasty through his first term win, blasted “some politicians today that enjoy support from large-scale mining and are building a coal-fired power plant in our town so that when they’re elected, operations could start.”

Scrawny and visibly wounded from an accident, Reynald Rodriguez, a Narra resident who raises hogs for a living, did not mince words on why a coal-powered plant will be detrimental for his community. “It’s not good for the environment, it’s destructive. And it won’t help residents here. It’s going to disrupt livelihoods,” Rodriguez said. “Coal, for the ordinary resident, is a nuisance. First off, the seas will be affected, as will the mountains. It will destroy the environment.”

A man smiles at the camera and leans on a crutch
Reynald Rodriguez, a Narra resident who raises hogs for a living / Credit: Deejae Dumlao.

This story was produced with support from the Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published in Philstar.com on 9 August 2022. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Today, the coal plant in Narra is taking shape at a former stockyard of Narra Nickel Mining and Development Corp. The facility is expected to go online by the second quarter of 2023 / Credit: Deejae Dumlao.

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