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Wrong Priorities? DENR Under Fire, ‘White Beach’ In Manila Bay Could Be Harmful, Unnecessary Amid The Pandemic

Wrong Priorities? DENR Under Fire, ‘White Beach’ In Manila Bay Could Be Harmful, Unnecessary Amid The Pandemic
Workers start filling the shore of Manila Bay with ‘white sand’ on Sept. 3, 2020. Photo by KJ Rosales, The Philippine STAR

Amid the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, the government could have allotted the P389.8-million funds for the “white beach” in Manila Bay for more important projects, according to critics.

Vice President Leni Robredo expressed belief on Sunday, Sept. 6 that the funds for the project should have been used to aid the poor during this difficult time.

Parang napaka-insensitive na gagawin mo iyan sa height ng pandemic, na ang daming nagugutom. Ang daming naghihirap, gagawin mo iyong pag-beautify (It seems very insensitive to do that at the height of the pandemic, when many are going hungry. Many are suffering, but you have to do that beautification),” Robredo said in her weekly radio show “BISErbisyong LENI.”

Department of Education Secretary Leonor Briones on Monday, Sept. 7 said during a virtual “Laging Handa” public briefing that such a budget could be utilized for the purchase of gadgets, computers and radios for distance and blended learning of students.

On Friday, the fisherfolk group Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamalakaya ng Pilipinas (Pamalakaya) stressed that instead of the white beach project, the government should have covered the 13,000 hectares of Manila Bay’s coast with mangroves.

Pamalakaya national chairperson Fernando Hicap said mangroves serve many important purposes to marine environment and coastal communities. Its amenities include community defense against strong waves, storm surges, flood regulation, sediment trapping, marine wildlife habitat and nurseries.

The Pamalakaya pointed out that mangrove planting costs at least P28,881 per hectare, which means that the P389-million budget for the Manila Bay “white sand” filling would be sufficient to turn13,469 hectares of Manila Bay into mangrove forests, which could serve as “fish sanctuary, pollution filter, and coastal communities protection.”

The fisherfolk group said thousands of hectares of mangroves were destroyed due to the government's massive reclamation projects favoring commercial and industrial hubs. It added that in the 1990s, mangroves in Manila Bay used to cover 54,000 hectares but they have significantly shrunk to 2,000 hectares after a few years of industrialization.

At present, the Manila Bay is left with less than 500 hectares of mangroves, the Pamalakaya noted.

The Pamalakaya also warned that dolomite, the material used for the artificial white sand, could pose harm to the marine environment and humans, as it contains heavy metals such as aluminum, lead and mercury that could contribute to the pollution and acidity of Manila Bay.

The EcoWaste Coalition likewise said, “Manila Bay does not need cosmetic beautification through beach nourishment that has to be periodically repeated to address coastal erosion due to waves and storm surges.”

The group urged the DENR and the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) to publicly disclose studies and proceedings of consultative meetings, if any, that will shed light on the decision to push through with this beach nourishment project.

Rodne Galicha, executive director of Living Laudato Si Philippines, said the dumping of dolomite or any material that is not natural to the area is reclamation.

Health and legal concerns

The “white sand” being dumped into the shores of Manila Bay may pose harm to health, the Department of Health (DOH) warned on Monday.

In a press briefing, DOH Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said there are medical reports that crushed dolomite can cause “adverse reactions” primarily on the respiratory system, if “aerosolized” and inhaled.

“If you inhale the dust, your respiratory [system] will be affected. But we are not saying that when you go to Manila Bay, you’ll get it at once,” she noted. “But with the clearance of the (DENR), I don’t think this [project] will be implemented if it will cause harm to the environment and also to our people.”

Sen. Nancy Binay lamented that the DENR failed to see the health hazards caused by the dumping of dolomite and asked the agency to immediately suspend the project.

“The dumping of dolomite as a substitute for white sand only means that this plan on Manila Bay rehabilitation did not pass through the proper process and study,” Binay said in a statement.

“There was no public consultation, no environmental clearance, and premature issuance of the environmental impact assessment, and it’s clear the plan was haphazardly done,” she added.

According to the senator, the public deserved to be informed about the whole context of the project particularly its impact on the environment and public health.

Binay urged the DENR to release to the public the project’s budget and approved environmental impact statement in the interest of transparency.

But these are not the only issues that the DENR has to face. An infrastructure-oriented think tank said on Monday that by seeking an exemption from its own compliance rules, the DENR violated the law and its own regulations on environment compliance certificates (ECC).

Infrawatch Philippines pointed out that the DENR violated Presidential Decree (PD) No. 1586 or the Environmental Impact Statement System Law, and Department Administrative Order (DAO) No. 2003-30, the agency’s own implementing rules and regulations on ECC.

Citing PD 1586 and DAO No. 2003-30, Infrawatch convenor Terry Ridon said projects that require an ECC are those located in environmentally critical areas, including those set aside as aesthetic potential tourist spots. He pointed out that Executive Order No. 69, issued in 1999, designates portions of the waters in Manila Bay and its foreshore area as a special tourist zone.

“As such, there is absolutely no basis for the DENR to say that its project is not covered by ECC rules. The proponents should have applied and received an approved ECC before starting the project,” Ridon said. “There is therefore clear legal basis for the project to stop proceeding until and unless an ECC has been issued by the DENR itself.”

He emphasized that the DENR should be the first to follow its own environment laws and regulations.

Ridon said the situation also presents a prima facie case for a writ of kalikasan from the Supreme Court (SC), including a temporary environment protection order stopping the Manila Bay white beach project.

Manila Bay spans several cities and provinces, as far as Bataan and Cavite, so there will be no difficulty complying with the writ of kalikasan’s procedural requirements relating to the potential environment impact of the project in several localities, he contended.

At the very least, Ridon thinks the SC should intervene under its Manila Bay Advisory Committee led by Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta. The MBAC was reconstituted by Peralta himself on Dec. 19 last year.

The MBAC is tasked to maintain the mandate of the continuing mandamus and enable the high court to verify the reports of the government agencies tasked to clean up Manila Bay.

“As such, the MBAC should not wait for a fresh case to be filed before intervening on the white sand controversy, as it will afford the public immediate relief from the potential environmental impact of the project,” Ridon argued.

Both the SC and the Manila Bay Task Force created by President Duterte call for the cleanup, rehabilitation, restoration and maintenance of the waters of Manila Bay to a level fit for swimming, and also to improve water quality through the reduction of coliform levels in all river systems and tributaries within Manila Bay, he said.

Both also make no mention of a mandate to beautify a short stretch of Manila Bay’s 190-kilometer coastline, Ridon said.

Marine environmental law expert Jay Batongbacal, associate dean of the University of the Philippines College of Law and director of the Institute for Marine Affairs and Law of the Sea, also stated that critics can ask the trial courts for a writ of kalikasan to prevent the completion of the Manila Bay white beach.

He said this as he cited reports from American cement and mining companies regarding the harmful effects of pulverized dolomite.

Safety data sheets from Lafarge, Vulcan Materials Company, and Lehigh Hanson all warn about the increased risk of cancer and lung damage, as well as eye irritation, caused by inhalation of and repeated exposure to dolomite dust. The companies recommend the wearing of protective clothing and gloves – which would be unfit for recreational activities associated with beaches.

Defenders of the beach project, on the other hand, maintain that the dolomite has not been pulverized into dust that can be inhaled, but merely crushed into larger particles.

In a radio interview, Batongbacal also noted that the dumping of fake sand may even be considered pollution because “dolomite is not a natural part of Manila Bay.”

The writ of kalikasan is a remedy available to persons or groups on behalf of those whose constitutional right to a balanced and healthful ecology is violated or threatened by an unlawful act or omission of a public officer or private entity.

Under the Rules of Procedure for Environmental Cases promulgated by the SC on April 13, 2010, the violation or threat must involve “environmental damage of such magnitude as to prejudice the life, health or property of inhabitants in two or more cities or provinces.”

“A case for a writ of kalikasan may be filed against any activity, especially that done by the government, if it will lead to possible environmental damage and harm to people, so the project may be stopped and other relief or remedy may be sought for the situation,” Batongbacal said in a mix of English and Filipino.

“There can be a basis for violations of laws, anti-pollution laws, civil liabilities for deliberately doing an activity that causes damage to other people,” he added.

However, Batongbacal noted that the project may become “fait accompli” soon since the government is rushing to finish it. If this happens, there may no longer be any use for an injunction.

Still, he said civil society groups could still sue for damages and ask the court to order the project proponents to “undertake remedial action” by removing the dolomite and hauling it out of Manila Bay.

“There are many laws involved. It has to be studied carefully,” he added.

Oceana Philippines vice president Gloria Estenzo Ramos highlighted the lack of an environmental impact study and environmental compliance certificate as a violation of the Fisheries Code, the Local Government Code, and the Environmental Impact Assessment System Act.

“Ironically, it is the (DENR) that does not seem to follow the requirements set by law,” Ramos said, adding that not only did the agency destroy the bay but also the source of the fake sand in Cebu.

“We want Manila Bay to be clean, safe and healthy. Dumping white sand, however, is not the way to do it. White sand is not a natural feature of the Bay and it will fade away once it is hit by storms. Aside from the harm it may cause on the people and the fisheries and marine ecosystem, dumping sand in this area is also against laws like the Fisheries Code,” she added.

Under the rules, the court can issue the writ within three days from the filing of the petition if it is found to be sufficient in form and substance. The court will require the respondents to file a verified return in which they must defend themselves against allegations of massive violations of environmental laws or regulations.

The court is given 60 days from the submission of the petition for a decision to grant or deny the privilege of the writ of kalikasan.

If the privilege of the writ is granted, the court may direct the respondent to cease and desist from the questioned acts, to protect or restore the environment, to monitor strict compliance with the judgment, and to submit periodic reports. Damages are not awarded to the petitioners themselves in a writ of kalikasan case.

This would not be the first legal issue to hound Manila Bay – an area generally considered to be unsafe for swimming and recreational activities because of high levels of runoff of lead and contaminants from garbage dumps and fecal coliform caused by the presence of human waste from households with poor sanitation.

The SC, in a groundbreaking Dec. 18, 2008 decision, issued a writ of continuing mandamus directing various government agencies to “clean up, rehabilitate and preserve Manila Bay, and restore and maintain its waters… to make them fit for swimming, skin-diving and other forms of contact recreation.” The DENR has said this is now being attained in portions of the bay.

Besides the DPWH and the DENR, agencies covered by the order were the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, the DepEd, DOH, Department of Agriculture, Department of Budget and Management, Philippine Coast Guard, Philippine National Police Maritime Group and Department of the Interior and Local Government.

The DENR was directed to fully implement its Operational Plan for the Manila Bay Coastal Strategy for the “rehabilitation, restoration and conservation of the Manila Bay at the earliest possible time.” The heads of the abovementioned agencies were directed to submit quarterly progressive reports to the SC.

Pamalakaya said the environmental and health issues raised so far should be “more than enough basis” to suspend the project. Hicap underscored that “synthetic beautification is far from genuine rehabilitation” required by the SC decision.

“The SC mandamus never mentioned any beautification component programs such as the present project of the DENR,” Hicap added.

The SC decision was the basis for President Duterte to issue Administrative Order No. 16, dated Feb. 19, 2019, which created a Manila Bay Task Force and sought to fast-track the “rehabilitation and restoration of the coastal and marine ecosystem.”

The DENR also made the Manila Bay Cleanup Program a “priority activity.” But the program’s page in the DENR website did not mention that the DPWH’s Beach Nourishment, Coastal Restoration and Enhancement of Manila Baywalk Area project would be part of the Proposed Manila Bay Rehabilitation Program.

The DPWH Central Office awarded the project – which will create a white sand beach along a 500-meter stretch from the United States embassy to the Manila Yacht Club – to the joint venture of Mac Builders and Dragonhart Construction Enterprise Inc. on Dec. 27. The notice was signed by DPWH Undersecretary Emil Sadain.

The contract agreement for the P389.8-million project was signed on Jan. 15 and the notice to proceed was issued by DPWH Regional Director Ador Canlas on Jan. 16. The project was supposed to be completed within 180 calendar days.

According to the procurement documents, the project called for the use of 62,100 cubic meters of the “top layer of sand” at a cost of P2,271.36 per cubic meter or a total of P141.05 million.

The backfill, or the “bottom layer of sand,” amounted to 102,600 cubic meters and cost P1,155.62 per cubic meter or a total of P118.57 million. This is slightly cheaper than the P124.68-million cost of 6,120 square meters of geotextile bags.

Mac Builders and Dragonhart joint venture, based in Barangay Bagumbayan, Quezon City, was the only interested bidder for the project. It submitted a bid offer slightly lower than the P397.9-million approved budget for the contract.

Project defended

Environment officials continue to defend the use of the crushed dolomite as part of the Manila Bay rehabilitation program, saying that it will provide more benefits for the seawater.

Director Wilfredo Moncano of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau said they are ready to counter moves that will prevent the DENR from pursuing the “white sand project.”

“In any case that a group or groups make a legal move to oppose the project, we will immediately answer them and provide a detailed explanation,” he added.

At the same time, Moncano explained, “These pulverized dolomite boulders are composed of calcium magnesium carbonate, which doesn’t have any adverse effects whatsoever to the ecosystem. It has long been used in several famous beach resorts in Cebu.”

He said that even in other countries such as Singapore and France, dolomite, which is formed in a marine environment, has been used for manmade beaches.

Moncado added the shipment of the “dolomitic limestone rock” is covered by an ore transport permit issued by the MGB Region 7.

“Taxes and fees were paid, and the material came from a legitimate source: the Dolomite Mining Corp. in Alcoy, Cebu, a Mineral Production Sharing Agreement holder,” he noted.

Director William Cuñado of the Environmental Management Bureau also expressed belief that the material will have a positive effect on Manila Bay.

“Apart from contributing to Manila Bay’s physical makeover, this white sand will play a big role in the bay’s nourishment,” Cuñado said.

Moncano addressed reports that dolomite could be hazardous to people’s health: “If we are talking about mining processes and there is the generation of dolomite’s fine particles, and the person is not wearing protective equipment, there is a high chance for it to affect one’s health.”

 But there is nothing to worry about, Moncano said, with regard to the crushed dolomite that will be placed along the shoreline in the city of Manila.

 “An engineering intervention will be employed, such as the use of Geotubes, to hold the sand in place,” he added. Geotubes are marine construction devices for preventing the erosion of seawalls, among others.

 For his part, Cuñado stressed that the project is part of the overall Manila Bay rehabilitation program and that prior to using the crushed dolomite, the DENR had already recorded improvements in the water quality of the bay.

 Data from the DENR’s EMB showed that as of January 2020, the coliform levels in the bay have “drastically decreased.”

 DENR Undersecretary Benny Antiporda also pointed out that before rehabilitation commenced, around 50 trucks of garbage were collected in the bay area during storms and heavy monsoon rains.

 “Right now, only two to three trucks of garbage are collected during habagat, and much less during amihan season,” Antiporda said, referring to the monsoons.

 Antiporda has said the artificial beach is tentatively set to open on Sept. 19.

 Malacañang also defended the project, saying it would help control floods and prevent soil erosion.

 Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the Manila Bay project is part of the “overall adaptation policy” of the DENR.

 “What they did was beach enhancement. It’s not just for beautification. Beach enhancement seeks to prevent soil erosion and to help in flood control. So although it is primarily beautification, there is a reason for doing so,” Roque said in a press briefing.

 Reacting to claims that the white sand project is ill-timed, Roque clarified that it was conceptualized before the pandemic.

 “The plan to put white sand in Manila Bay is part of the budget for 2020. That means it was approved in 2019. We did not expect COVID-19. You know the budget rules. If it is in the line item, you cannot use the funds for something else,” the Palace spokesman said.

 “So it’s not as if the project was planned during COVID. The 2020 budget was used for this project and it was approved in 2019. We did not have COVID then,” he added.

 Roque also assured the public that the DENR has assessed the possible impact of the project on the environment. Engineering works were also conducted to ensure that the sand would not be swept away easily, he added.

 “Do not worry... They approved the environmental impact assessments and environmental impact studies and they know what they should do and what they are not supposed to do,” he said. “It won’t be approved by the (DENR) if it would not be beneficial to us.”

 Roque also expressed confidence that the project would withstand legal scrutiny.

 “Some are saying the Supreme Court should take action. We will respect the decision of the Supreme Court, but I think the Supreme Court will also respect the primary jurisdiction of DENR to take care of our environment,” he said.