How Electric Car Rise Endangers Philippines’ ‘Last Frontier’

Sumitomo Metal Mining has an approximate 25 percent stake in the company that owns the Rio Tuba – Nickel Asia mine, based in the Philippines.

The mine has a disproportionate presence in Bataraza. One of its main high schools, supermarkets and municipal buildings all bears the name Rio Tuba, a testimony from company officials attesting to the development of the mine in the region.

“The city of Bataraza before mining began was a fourth-class municipality, which in Filipino classifications is the poorest of the poor,” said Jose Baylon, spokesperson for Nickel Asia.

Macadam Highway is the link between Rio Tuba and the global supply chain. (Kimberly dela Cruz for NBC News)

Macadam Highway is the link between Rio Tuba and the global supply chain. (Kimberly dela Cruz for NBC News)

The city is now considered a first-rate municipality, he said, a designation that places it just below a city. Among the city’s major improvements: a water supply system that Nickel Asia paid for at the behest of government officials.

“This is made possible by the income generated by mining,” said Baylon.

The mine began operations in the mid-1970s after Rio Tuba Nickel Mining Corp. has obtained permission from the Philippine government. At the time, the nickel ore mined from the earth was mainly used in the production of stainless steel.

The operation took on new importance after the turn of the century with the rise of electric cars. Nickel is a key component in lithium batteries that power vehicles, and there’s only one way to get it: dig in the earth.

“Nickel is our biggest concern for increasing lithium-ion cell production,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted earlier this year.

NBC Nightly News examines how the growing demand for electric vehicles is putting rainforests at risk.

NBC Nightly News examines how the growing demand for electric vehicles is putting rainforests at risk.

Advances in clean energy have coincided with new technology that has enabled companies like Nickel Asia to extract nickel from a different type of ore. A process called high pressure acid leaching has extracted nickel from low grade laterite ore.

But the technique comes at a price: because the materials are on the surface, as opposed to deep underground, miners have to clear a larger swath of land.

“You basically have to get more ore out of the ground, and that obviously has a bigger footprint from a mining perspective,” said Andrew Miller, COO at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, which tracks the vehicle supply chain. electric.

Over time, the Rio Tuba mine has swallowed up more of the rainforest.

The Rio Tuba mine doubled in size between 1987 and 2020. Satellite imagery shows its growth. (USGS / NASA Landsat / Earthrise)

The Rio Tuba mine doubled in size between 1987 and 2020. Satellite imagery shows its growth. (USGS / NASA Landsat / Earthrise)

Alarmed by the potential consequences, environmental and indigenous rights groups have mobilized their resources.

In 2010, the indigenous peoples’ advocacy group Ancestral Land / Domain Watch and the Center for Biocultural Diversity at the University of Kent in the UK released a scathing report calling for an end to mining operations in the area.

“Continued mining activities in Bulanjao will irreparably damage the best-preserved forest in the southern tip of Palawan, with predictable negative consequences for the food production capacity of the indigenous and migrant farming communities living at the foot of this mountain range.” , indicates the report. noted.

“Due to mining activities taking place at high altitudes, the risk of landslides is likely to increase to an unprecedented level. In addition, the ecotourism potential of this mountain forest is likely to be compromised.

Two years later, the nonprofit environmental group Friends of the Earth Japan announced that it had completed an environmental field study in Palawan which it said found dangerous levels of hexavalent chromium, a carcinogenic chemical. which was at the center of Julia Roberts’ film. “Erin Brockovich”, in one of the rivers near the mine.

In an interview, Hozue Hatae, a researcher at Friends of the Earth Japan, said the group initiated the tests after conducting a 2009 survey of 133 households which found that 85% reported an increase in coughing and dizziness. other respiratory problems, as well as skin lesions. .

The group conducted annual tests on the Togpon River from 2009 to 2019, which found that during the rainy season, it exceeded the hexavalent chromium exposure levels used by the World Health Organization to determine the safety of drinking water.

This story’s reporting partner, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, last month conducted water tests along the Togpon River and Kinurong Creek. Four of the seven samples taken from different locations along the rivers showed levels of hexavalent chromium above the WHO standard for drinking water.

Several people living near the area said in interviews last month that residents stopped using the river and stream for drinking water years ago after the water took on a reddish hue. .

According to experts, nickel mines increase the release of soluble chromate in groundwater and surface water. The risk increases when appropriate containment measures are not in place. But it’s difficult to make a definitive link between a mine and high chromate levels without the results of preoperative water tests.

A journalist takes a water sample in the estuary of the Tuba River, at the confluence of the Togpon River. (Kimberly dela Cruz for NBC News)

A journalist takes a water sample in the estuary of the Tuba River, at the confluence of the Togpon River. (Kimberly dela Cruz for NBC News)

Two experts – Jennifer De France, team leader for drinking water quality at WHO, and Murray McBride, professor of soil science at Cornell University – said it was possible that the level of chromate in water is a natural phenomenon resulting from concentrations in the underlying rocks.

Whatever the cause, McBride said, it could be detrimental to the area’s rice paddies.

“There is a potential for crop damage from chromate accumulated in the soil, as well as a possible risk to human health if chromate levels in soils are too high,” he said.

Baylon, the spokesperson for Nickel Asia, rejected the idea that the mine contaminated the water. He said that Rio Tuba’s initial sampling in December 1996 showed “increased values ​​of hexavalent chromium in nickel mining water prior to peak mining.”

He said Rio Tuba conducted a 2018-2019 study with the National Institute of Geological Sciences at the University of the Philippines, Diliman, which showed that the hexavalent chromium in the surface water exiting the mine was at low levels while the metal in the groundwater was generally undetected.

“The mine’s drainage system is designed to direct surface runoff from the mine directly to the Rio Tuba River and not for consumption, irrigation or agriculture,” Baylon said. “Therefore, mine water or Cr6 + (hexavalent chromium) is very unlikely to enter local water supplies. “

He acknowledged that mining operations invariably have an impact on the environment, but noted that throughout history advancements in technology have come at a cost.

“I think human development has been a series of compromises over the years,” he added. “Part of what we are suffering today is paying for the coal factories, which made the industrial revolution possible.”

Baylon stressed that his company is taking a series of measures to mitigate the impact of the mine on the ground, including a sophisticated process of planting trees on the mined area. He noted that Rio Tuba has received numerous honors, including the Best Practices in Mineral Mining Award at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations First Minerals Award in 2017.

“We cannot castigate an entire industry because there are irresponsible operators,” he said. “Life has been a series of compromises, and we always make compromises. But I think the compromise is now much better than it was.

Representatives for Tesla and Toyota did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for Panasonic declined to comment.

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