* Minister orders cancellation of 75 mining contracts
* Projects are in watershed areas, many in exploration stage
* "You kill watershed, you kill life" - minister
* Minister says courts cannot stop closure of mines
(Adds quotes from minister, comments from mining chamber)
By Manolo Serapio Jr and Enrico Dela Cruz
MANILA, Feb 14 The Philippines' environment
minister stepped up a crackdown on mining on Tuesday, cancelling
almost a third of the country's contracts for undeveloped mines
and rejecting any challenges to earlier orders to shut over half
of all operating pits.
The move turns up the heat in her battle with the mining
sector after she ordered the closure of 23 of the country's 41
mines earlier this month on environmental grounds, causing an
outcry from the industry and threats of legal action.
The latest 75 contracts, which cover projects in the
exploration stage or otherwise not yet in production, are all in
watershed zones and would threaten water supply if they went
ahead, Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Regina Lopez
"You kill the watershed, you kill life," Lopez told a media
A long-time environmentalist, Lopez ordered the closure of
the 23 mines on Feb. 2 for damaging watersheds and for siltation
of coastal waters and farmlands. Five more mines were suspended.
The industry says the orders will affect 1.2 million people.
The contracts cancelled on Tuesday, known as mineral
production sharing agreements (MPSAs), include the $1.2 billion
copper-gold project of Philex Mining Corp, one of the
country's biggest miners, in southern Philippines.
Also scrapped was the permit for the $5.9 billion Tampakan
copper-gold project in South Cotabato province in Mindanao
island, the biggest stalled mining venture in the Southeast
Tampakan failed to take off after the province where it is
located banned open-pit mining in 2010, prompting commodities
giant Glencore Plc to quit the project in 2015.
"We're canceling this as a gift of love to the people of
Cotabato," Lopez said.
There are currently 311 MPSAs including those for the 41
operating mines, government data showed.
Lopez also disputed the ability of the country's courts to
halt her closure orders as affected miners prepare to take legal
"There is no TRO (temporary restraining order) that holds
function in the case of environment enforcement," she said.
'ABSURD', SAYS INDUSTRY
Lawyer Ronald Recidoro from the Chamber of Mines of the
Philippines said Lopez's latest action was "absurd" and ignored
due process given MPSAs were contracts between the government
and the companies.
"You cannot just unilaterally cancel contracts, especially
if there are no specific grounds," Recidoro told Reuters.
Mining law allowed operations in watersheds, he added,
except those declared protected by the government.
But Lopez said it was within her discretion "to decide on
the resources of the country."
Top Philippine nickel ore producer Nickel Asia Corp
said on Tuesday it would pursue all legal remedies to
overturn an order to close the operations of its unit Hinatuan
Hinatuan was told that its operation has "impaired the
functions of the watershed in the area," according to a copy of
the closure order.
The decision to close or suspend existing mine operations
followed a months-long audit of the mines, although a government
team that reviewed the audit recommended only suspensions and
President Rodrigo Duterte on Sunday said he would not stand
in the way of Lopez's decision to shut several mines in southern
Philippines, the second time he has thrown his support behind
the minister he appointed last June.
If Duterte upholds Lopez's actions, Recidoro said affected
miners could seek relief with the Court of Appeals and "then the
(Reporting by Enrico dela Cruz and Manolo Serapio Jr.; Editing
by Richard Pullin)