June 27, 2017 / 5:08 AM / 25 days ago

Philippines minister may decide on mining closure orders next month

MANILA, June 27 (Reuters) - The new Philippines environment minister said on Tuesday he may decide next month on the fate of dozens of mining operations and contracts that his predecessor ordered closed, suspended or cancelled to protect watersheds and other natural resources.

Roy Cimatu said he plans to visit mines in the world's top nickel ore supplier to see if they are operating responsibly as he takes a slow approach towards a sector that was the target of a 10-month crackdown led by the previous minister, Regina Lopez.

Cimatu, a former soldier, took over the environment ministry post on May 8, shortly after the dismissal of Lopez, who ordered the closure or suspension of 26 operating mines and revoked 75 mining contracts in what she said was a fight against "greedy miners" threatening public heath and nature.

"Hopefully by next month we can come up with the decision on appeals regarding" the mining contracts, Cimatu told reporters at an industry forum.

"I am going slowly about these issues on mining, I will concentrate first on the environment. But that does not mean mining isn't a priority. That's why I have plans to visit some mining companies."

Many of the miners affected by Lopez's orders filed appeals that have yet to be acted on with the office of President Rodrigo Duterte or the environment ministry. But the appeals effectively stayed Lopez's orders.

Shortly after he assumed the job, Cimatu told Reuters it was possible to strike a balance between mining and protecting natural resources, signalling his intent to settle a bitter dispute that has been one of the biggest economic conundrums of Duterte's presidency.

Since then, Cimatu has been careful in framing his stance towards mining. Earlier this month, he said he will "strictly enforce mining and environmental regulations, and mining operations found violating laws, rules and regulations shall be subject to penalties, suspensions and/or cancellation."

Global nickel prices have fallen nearly 20 percent from this year's peak after Lopez's dismissal raised the prospect of increased supply from the Philippines. Prices have also been pulled down by more mines in Indonesia being allowed to export ore.

Cimatu said among mines he will inspect next month are those in nickel-rich areas in the southern Mindanao region and in Palawan province.

"I will go visit every mining company," he said. ⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠ (Reporting by Enrico dela Cruz; Writing by Manolo Serapio Jr.; Editing by Tom Hogue)

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