A river in peril
Text and photos by Gina Mission

Dyzum Distillery in Nasugbu

Nasugbu, Batangas – On ordinary days, Palico River looks like creamed coffee. On certain days, however, its color changes to that of black coffee. And despite Batangas’ renown for the great-tasting kape barako, people in the area cannot smile over this coffee-colored stream. For the water that runs through Palico is dangerous.

___The present-day Palico, said Isabelo Alicaya, who lives near the river, is a stark contrast from what it was in the 1950s. The water, he said, was clear, and there was not a trace of industrial pollution. Nowadays, however, only the "brave and hungry" fisherman would dare to go down the river, especially on those days when its color changes to that of black coffee. As Alicaya asked: "Who would want to risk getting all those diseases?"

___Palico traverses six barangays, each having an average of 500 households. Most of them rely on the river as a major food source. The river discharges into Nasugbu Bay. And once it does, whatever pollutant it carries is passed into the sea.

___Residents along the river recall a tragic fish kill in September of 1994, which badly affected them. Since then, the fish catch has dwindled. Even Nasugbu Bay, once a fertile fishing ground, was adversely affected.

___Such tragedy prompted the filing of separate complaints by Nasugbu residents against the three distilleries and a refinery, which currently operate in their town. These are Dyzum Distillers, Inc., Consolidated Distillers of the Far East, Inc., Absolute Chemicals, Inc., and Central Azucarera de Don Pedro (CADP).

___The Pollution Adjudication Board (PAB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) in Batangas issued cease and desist orders to all four establishments, but up to now, all of them are still being allowed to operate, on the condition – and their promise – not to discharge their effluents into the river anymore. Fisher folk from barangays San Diego and Bucana maintain, however, that these companies continue to discharge water pollutants into the Palico River.

___Finding government action to be lacking, the local officials of Bucana and San Diego have informally organized and taken upon themselves the task of monitoring the Palico River. They regularly inspect the discharges originating from the distilleries.

___Their monitoring has led to other discoveries: the depletion of the mangrove; siltation and loss of municipal land and territorial waters due to erosion; and blatant disposal of animal waste and carcasses into the river. All of these are detrimental to their livelihoods as fisher folk.

___Atty. Dominique Misa, legal counsel for the fisher folk, attributes the existing pollution problem of Palico to the inaction of the regional office of the PAB. Dyzum Distillers and its predecessor, Magahis, Atty. Misa said, have operated the distillery without the proper treatment facility since 1976. CADP has been operating since the pre-war time, but has only installed a treatment facility recently. Consolidated Distillers started operation in 1982 and has been allowed to discharge its untreated effluents into the river during rainy season.

___As early as 1995, Dyzum was ordered by the PAB to cease and desist from operating. But the order, according to Atty. Misa, was not immediately implemented because the company asked for two more weeks to "process the molasses that had been delivered, which will get spoiled if left unprocessed." PAB Batangas granted the request over the objection of the barangay council members present, although the PAB report, Atty. Misa added, mentions that they agreed to the extension.

___PAB also ordered Consolidated Distilleries to cease and desist from operation but the company appealed the order on the ground that there had been a breakdown in their equipment. The PAB lifted the order but cautioned the company against discharging its waste into the river.

___Both Absolute Chemicals and CADP are at present under investigation by the PAB. Atty. Misa said that on several periods of inspection, Absolute was found to be discharging its effluent from its cooling tower into the river. CADP, on the other hand, appeared to have several leaks leading to the river and a main pipe discharging into the river.

___Upon the request of Atty. Misa, the PAB directed the DENR in Batangas to create a multi-sectoral team, which will monitor the quality of the discharge from the four establishments. The team scheduled to meet and monitor twice a month. The establishments, however, discharge their waste on the dates when there is no scheduled monitoring.

___Atty. Misa also filed a similar complaint with the DENR Secretary, Antonio Cerilles, emphasizing the erosion of the river, which has already moved at least 600 meters from its original site since 1960, in the process losing more than 10 meters of Nasugbu’s land area to Lian. Secretary Cerilles has yet to act on the complaint.

___Atty. Misa filed yet another similar complaint with the Batangas local government office. However, in her the unofficial reply, then-Nasugbu Mayor Rosario Apacible cleared herself of any liability on the ground that Consolidated Distillers is not a pollutant because it has been issued an environment compliance certificate (ECC) by the DENR. On the other hand, the mayor said, CADP was given an award of recognition by the DENR for constructing a waste treatment facility under one of its programs.

The color of creamed coffee: A good day for Palico River

___It is interesting to note that the Palico River, according to Atty. Misa, is wrongfully classified as "Class C" (intended only for bathing, propagation of fish, and industrial water supply), despite Presidential Proclamation 1801, which declares the entire coastline of Batangas a marine reserve. Had the river been properly classified as protected, in accordance with law, no industry would have been allowed to discharge even treated waste and its sewage, she explained.

___After three years on the case, Atty. Misa appears disillusioned. "We have devoted three years of time and effort into investigating and gathering information and pursuing the complaints, not for any personal gain or gratification, but simply to help the fisher folk of Nasugbu and Lian to regain their basic right to livelihood from the river and coast. And in our pursuit thereof, we have had our share of frustrations," she said.

___Their 1995 complaint addressed to the Office of the DENR secretary, for instance, "could not be found" in the office of the Undersecretary for Environment where it was endorsed. Thus, Atty. Misa had to file the same complaint again with the new DENR Secretary, Antonio Cerilles.

___Their motion for reconsideration on the classification of the river from Class C to a protected one has not been acted upon since 1995. Their plea for access to information, particularly on the plans and specifications of waste treatment facilities and monitoring reports of the region was denied on the pretext that these records are "confidential."

___"We can only conclude that those monitoring reports and plans and specifications which have been suppressed, would have been adverse to the industries, and would have identified persons responsible for the over-extended pollution problem and would have given an indication of their technical competence or incompetence," said Atty. Misa.

___Other than the construction of spur dikes – which were also destroyed in a 1996 typhoon - no action has been implemented, according to Atty. Misa, on the 1993 complaints filed before the offices of the local government officials of both Nausgbu and Lian. And while a joint task force consisting of the councilors both municipalities has been created, it has yet to implement the resolution it approved concerning the pollution.

___The Palico River case has already been recommended for a Senate inquiry, according to Atty. Misa. The DENR, however, is taking its own sweet time and dragging the cases against the four industrial establishments.

___For the fisher folk of Palico River and their dependents, who depend on the life of this waterway for their own lives, such indifference to their plight is hard to understand.

CyberDyaryo | 1999.09.02