February 13, 2017 / 11:09 AM / 5 months ago

Philippine miners seek to block minister's appointment after pit closures

Philippine Environment Secretary Regina Lopez speaks in front of a chart on mining issues during a press briefing in Manila, Philippines February 9, 2017.Erik De Castro

MANILA (Reuters) - A group of miners on Monday opposed the appointment of the Philippine environment minister saying her ordered closure of more than half of the country's mines showed an "undeniable bias" against the sector.

Regina Lopez, a former environmental activist appointed by President Rodrigo Duterte last June, is among a few cabinet members who have yet to be confirmed by Congress.

Duterte re-appointed her in November after the commission on appointments - made up of lawmakers - bypassed her confirmation.

Lopez's recent moves show "antagonism towards large-scale mining, rendering her unfit and incapable of a responsible, fair, just and balanced implementation of the Constitution, the Philippine Mining Act and related laws," the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines said in a letter to lawmakers.

She "does not have the administrative experience and competence to lead the Department of Environment and Natural Resources" and has a "poor track record in leading and managing environmental and eco-tourism projects," the letter said.

Lopez angered the mining sector after ordering the closure of 23 of the Philippines' 41 mines for causing damage to watersheds and siltation of coastal waters and farmlands. She also ordered the suspension of another five mines.

A worker looks at the Rapu Rapu open pit mine owned by the Australian firm Lafayette mining in Albay province, central Philippines February 5, 2007.Romeo Ranoco/File Photo

In response, Lopez told Reuters that she does have "a bias against the operations of companies which cause suffering to our people."

"I do have a bias in favor of social justice and the environment. I will not cow to big business. My allegiance is to the common good and the Filipino people," she said.

The Feb. 2 decision on the closures followed a months-long audit of the mines last year. A government team that reviewed the audit recommended only suspensions and fines.

The Southeast Asian nation is the world's top nickel ore supplier. Lopez has said the mine closures account for about half of the domestic nickel ore output.

Duterte said on Sunday he would not stand in the way of Lopez's decision to close several mines in the southern Philippines after he saw the damage they had done to the environment.

The mining chamber has said that Lopez "violated due process" by not giving proper notice to miners affected by the closures and refusing to release the results of the audit.

Lopez, whose agency oversees mining, later said the audit results can be released, but stood by her decision to close or suspend 28 mines.

Reporting by Manolo Serapio Jr.; Editing by Tom Hogue

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