Flurry of new coal plants threaten Philippines’s Mindanao

More than half of new coal-fired power plants being built in the country are in Mindanao, with most sites in and around biodiversity areas the government declared protected.

Along the highway approaching the boundary areas of Davao city and Davao del Sur in Southern Philippines, Flora Salandron, a village councilor, opens the front windows she always locks up all day to keep away the dust from the highway. But these days, it’s no longer the dust, nor the fumes of passing trucks, that troubled her.

Just across the street, framed by her window and towering over most of the village of Binugao, stood the newly-built chimney of the 600 megawatt coal-fired power plant of the company Therma South Inc., a subsidiary of the Philippine company Aboitiz Power Corporation. “Soon there will be fumes coming out of that chimney,” says Salandron, her voice echoing her growing anxiety. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to us.”

Health activists and environmentalists have warned against the effects that the coal-fired power plant brings to the lives of people—from the toxic gases it will emit, to the dangers of contamination posed by coal combustion residues and the possible strain that operation of the plant might bring to the existing water resources. But the strong push of Davao city’s tough-talking and very popular mayor, Rodrigo Duterte, and the consent of village leaders, stifled the voices opposed to the plant.

The Aboitiz plant lies within the 60-hectare lot that straddles Davao city’s boundary village of Binugao and the largely fishing and farming village of Inawayan in Santa Cruz town of Davao del Sur.

It is one of the 45 new coal-fired power plants the Aquino government has lined up in the Philippines, supposedly to solve what business and power industry leaders project as the looming power shortage in 2015.

The sheer number of coal-fired plants built at the time when such plants are already being phased out in the West, have alarmed environmentalists.

Coal is the world’s top contributor to global warming, the leading culprit for climate change; and the Philippines has consistently been on the top 10 of the world’s most vulnerable countries to climate catastrophe.

Mindanao, which never used to experience typhoons, also got a dose of extreme weather in 2012, when the Supertyphoon Bopha battered the provinces of Compostela Valley and Davao Oriental, killing over a thousand people, and destroying some P10 billion worth of crops and properties. Yet, 13 of the new 45 coal-fired power plants being lined up in the Philippines are in Mindanao, an island still enjoying a relatively cheaper power rates than the rest of the country for its reliance on hydropower.

Recent projection by the Mindanao Development Authority (MinDA) shows that the flurry of coal-fired power plant construction in Mindanao will change the energy mix of the island from its current reliance on cheap hydropower to reliance on imported coal. This trend, environmentalists warned, will not only make electricity more expensive to ordinary consumers but will lock up the country’s dependence on coal power by 30 to 50 years.

For Aviva Imhof, coordinator of the Pacific Coal Network of the Australia-based The Sunrise Project, the figure is quite alarming, considering how countries around the world are now shifting towards renewable energy and are abandoning the dirty path of coal. “What Philippines is doing is locking itself to coal dependency in the next 30 to 50 years,” said Imhoff, “It’s crazy because there’s the concern about the global increase in coal prices; and if governments agree on climate targets, it will drive up the cost of coal, which consumers will be paying because the (power) generators will pass on the fuel cost to consumers,” she said, “You will end up paying for it,” she warned.

In July, the environment watchdog Greenpeace released a stern warning in Manila, saying the country’s “continued fixation” with coal-fired power plants as a main energy source will only invite climate catastrophes.

“While we cannot prevent super typhoons from entering the country, we can address what causes these storms to be stronger and more frequent, and we tag coal as the culprit, the main driver of climate change,” said Reuben Andrew Muni, climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace. The group’s second volume of the report, “The True Cost of Coal,” blamed coal as the main culprit for the occurrences of extreme weather. “Building more coal plants will just be loading the dice for another typhoon Haiyan,” said the report released in July, referring to the world’s strongest typhoon that devastated a large swathe of land in Central Philippines in November 2013.

More than half of the total number of new coal-fired power plants being built in the country, are in Mindanao, an island still enjoying cheaper electricity rates compared to the rest of the country because of its heavy reliance on hydropower. The flurry of coal plant construction in Mindanao, however, is projected to reverse the trend in the coming years. While Mindanao still sources out 56 per cent of its energy need from renewable energy (mainly hydropower) this year, this reliance on renewable energy is projected to go down to 33 per cent in 2016; as the island will rely more on fossil-based energy like coal, according to the MinDA’s supply outlook projection for Mindanao.

Bryan Diosma, MinDA technical head, said the share of fossil-based fuel in the energy mix in Mindanao is projected to increase from only 44 per cent in 2014 to 67 per cent in 2016.

The MinDA data he presented shows that coal will make up 49 per cent of Mindanao’s energy mix in 2016 while hydro will share a minimal 29 per cent in the same year.

Environment groups assail President Aquino’s long-standing bias for coal.

Gerry Arances, national coordinator of Philippine Movement for Climate Justice (PMCJ), accused the President of listening first to power industry players before listening to his people. PMCJ said the power industry player’s proposed solution to the energy crisis is to approve and build more coal-fired power plants, most of which failed to get the consent of communities where they are located.

Francis Morales, coordinator of the Balsa Mindanao, a nongovernment disaster response group set up in the wake of supertyphoons Bopha and Hainan, said the setting up of more coal-fired power plants make the government of the Philippines the biggest disaster to the Filipino people, and that there’s no other way for the people to survive but to rely on their own strength. “It’s liberating for the people to protect and defend themselves when the government is putting people’s welfare way below in its priority list,” said Morales.

“For putting up more coal-fired power plants at the time when the country faces the threats of climate catastrophe, the Philippine government has turned out to be the biggest disaster that ever happened to the Filipino people,” Morales said. “People should brace themselves against the impact of climate change, coming to us through these coal-fired power plants, courtesy of the Philippine government.”

But President Aquino, hardly spoke about energy in his latest state-of-the-nation address, except to warn that hydropower, as a main source of power, is unreliable.

PMCJ also noted that the Philippine Energy Plan (PEP) 2008-2030, the country targets energy self-sufficiency but through heavy reliance on fossil fuel, oil, gas and coal.   “With or without an energy crisis, the proposed new coal power-plants will inflict debilitating effects on environment, health, loss of livelihood and to our resiliency to climate change impacts,” Arances said. “The government will put its people in danger with its energy plan.”

While government increasingly dangled coal as the fast and affordable solution to the energy crisis, environmentalists pointed out that governments are paying high cost for health and social catastrophes that confront communities, as a result of coal plant operations, and this does not yet include the severe damage caused by extreme weather to the economy. Dr. Jean Lindo, health activist and convenor of the group NO to Coal in Southern Mindanao, cited studies made by by Jeff Stant, director of the Coal Combustion Waste Initiative Environment Integrity Project in the US, warning that coal combustion waste is toxic, that it has high concentrations of 17 heavy metals including arsenic, selenium, mercury, cadmium, chromium, lead, antimony, thallium, molybdenum, vanadium, nickel and cobalt as well as boron, sulfates, chlorides and other salts.

These heavy metals cause birth defects, adverse physiological, metabolic effects, harms birds, fish and livestock. The study also showed that people living near coal combustion waste sites face a high risk of cancer and a high risk of arsenic contamination in their ground water.

At present, there are already 13 existing coal plants in the Philippines, with a total installed capacity of 3,799 megawatts. The Department of Energy (DOE)report in 2012 shows that the country still relies 38.76 per cent of its energy needs from coal, and Greenpeace pointed out that this reliance on coal has been growing, not receding through the years. Once the 45 new coal plants—being lined up now—will run, the country’s carbon dioxide emission level will increase to 79.8 million metric tons a year. Greenpeace also warned that the country’s continued investment in coal also undermines the Philippines’ position to push for legally-binding climate treaty that might save the country from the devastating impacts of climate change.

Most of the coal plant sites overlap biodiversity areas that the government itself has declared protected.

Along the strip of coastline where the Aboitiz’ plant sits in Binugao up to the village of Lasang in the north, people have been trading stories about their surprised encounters with butandings (whale sharks), a sign that biodiversity level in the area is still high, says Leonardo Avila III, a Davao city councilor and president of the Save the Davao Gulf Foundation Inc. The Binugao plant lies facing the Davao Gulf, earlier identified in one study as feeding ground of 11 species of whales and placed as one of the biodiversity hotspots. Greenpeace had earlier identified the area as cetacean priority in its Oceans Campaign, because of the presence of whales and dugongs in the area. But the string of coal-fired power plants built around the Davao Gulf alone is alarming, says Muni. “We believe, though, that once the coal-fired power plant will start operation, marine life will be affected, including whale sharks and dugong.”

Just four towns away, another coal-fired power plant is being built in Malita, Davao Occidental, by another Philippine conglomerate, the San Miguel Corporation (SMC), targeting to use the coal mined from its newly-acquired coal mines in the adjacent province of South Cotabato. Up north, where Mindanao’s first coal-fired power plant the Steag’s 210 megawatt’s Mindanao Power Plant which started running in 2006, another power plants are being built; namely, the 405 Megawatt FDC Misamis Power Corporation, a subsidiary of another Philippine company Filinvest Development Corporation within Villanueva town; and the plant being set up by Minergy in Balingasag town.

Just two provinces away, in Maasim, Sarangani, where the Conal Coal plant is located, members of the group Anti-COALition, a national network of communities opposed to coal and endorsing renewable energy, reported that the plant’s area overlapped with the Tampoan marine biodiversity area, where dolphins were often sighted and dugongs were known to thrive.


AS WAVES lap the strip of shore in the Binugao side of the coal plant, a group of farmers taking a rest in a shade watch as a man, they fondly called Bobby, push his small boat and prepared to sail in the water. Bobby had been known in the area as the man who used to swim with the butandings, a whale shark. As his boat sailed far deeper into sea, the farmers saw a school of fish jumping over his boat to the water. “He will not catch them, he’s not a fisherman,” says Celestino Gibao, 50, “He will only watch those fish play, they’re his friends.” Fishers used to be happy when the butandings come because they signal an abundant catch, says Annabelle Lovitos, who lives in the Binugao area for years. Lovitos said she only saw the butandings one late afternoon, when the sea was calm. “The fishers just left them alone, because when they come, swarm of fish follows. They have a good catch and that leaves the fisherfolks are happy.”

“Butandings are indicator species because they’re filter feeder,” says Avila, “They don’t have teeth, only filters, looking like tiny hairs. When they eat, they just swallow the water, then filter the small organisms inside—small shrimps, krills—these krills are available when the water is clean enough for certain planktons to thrive, so the presence of butandings indicate that the water is good, because the planktons are there, and where there are planktons, there are krills,” said Avila. “Imagine the volume of krills they eat all day,” he said, “That only means abundance.”

To their right, the coal dome of the new coal plant caught the sun’s rays. Gibao stared at the conveyor belt running from the dome all the way to the newly-built port facility, where ships carrying coal from Kalimantan, will finally unload their cargo. “I was told there would be no human contact,” he said. “No one will touch the coal. After it is unloaded from the ship, it will directly pass the conveyor’s belt to the coal dome,” Gibao said, “The pipe bigger than a man will take in as much water from the sea to cool the boilers and spit the water back again to the sea.” Alejandro Canque, a resident, thinks that the water released from the plant will be a lot warmer.

Soon, the first phase of the plant will soon start its test run.

They wonder how long will the krills survive.

About Germelina Lacorte

Germelina A. Lacorte writes for the Philippine Daily Inquirer from Mindanao. She belongs to the 2010 batch of journalist fellows of the Masters in Journalism Programme at the Asian Center for Journalism (ACFJ) at the Ateneo de Manila University.

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