* Two DMCI nickel mines suspended last year
* DMCI mining arm chief says to resume ops while appeals pending
* Philippines is world’s top nickel ore supplier
By Neil Jerome Morales and Manolo Serapio Jr
MANILA, March 17 (Reuters) - A Philippine nickel ore producer plans to reopen two mines suspended for environmental violations while it awaits the outcome of an appeal, in a test of rules around the government’s crackdown on the industry.
The two mines were among 10 suspended last year during a months-long audit led by Environment Secretary Regina Lopez, who later ordered the closure of more than half of operating mines in the world’s top nickel ore exporter.
The move angered the industry, which said the closure orders were baseless and urged lawmakers this month to reject the ministerial appointment of Lopez, a committed environmentalist, in favour of a more moderate replacement.
The two mines are owned by construction-to-power firm DMCI Holdings Inc which said it wanted to test rules and assurances from government officials that its mines can operate while appeals are pending.
“We will hold on to what they said and start operating. Let them tell us to stop again. And we will tell them, look, you said we are not suspended during the pendency of our case,” Cesar Simbulan, president of DMCI’s mining arm, told reporters late on Thursday.
Simbulan said DMCI has filed appeals for the two projects, Zambales Diversified Metal Corp (ZDMC) and Berong Nickel Corp, with the environment agency and plans to restart both mines later this month.
The two mines were initially suspended last year. ZDMC was among 23 mines ordered shut by Lopez on Feb. 2 to protect watersheds, while Berong was among five others ordered suspended.
Lopez has said affected companies can appeal their case with the environment agency or with President Rodrigo Duterte and operate while awaiting a decision. It’s not clear if this applies to mines halted last year.
Lopez and other environment officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Leo Jasareno, a consultant to Lopez, told lawmakers at a hearing on Tuesday that miners who filed appeals with Duterte’s office or the environment agency can still operate, though he referred to mines ordered shut last month.
Simbulan said the company plans to rehire workers and hoped to secure government permits to ship out ore.
Operating “includes shipping out,” he said. “If the environment agency doesn’t grant us a permit then we will file a case.”
Philippine lawmakers on Tuesday deferred a decision to confirm or reject Lopez’s appointment, likely putting off any decision until at least May when they return from a six-week recess.
Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales and Manolo Serapio Jr.; Additional reporting by Enrico dela Cruz; Editing by Richard Pullin