The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) continues to draw flak for its ‘white sand dumping’ project on Manila Bay that the lead government environment agency said is only for ‘beautification’, not yet the rehabilitation planned for the historic yet much too polluted bay area.

On September 11, fishers and environment groups held a lightning rally in Baywalk to protest the dump-and-filling of dolomite “white sand” in Manila Bay.

Environment group Nilad Metro Manila Environment Network called on the government to stop the project and use the funds to organize clean-up activities in Manila Bay. The groups also asked government to conduct stakeholder consultations about a comprehensive plan to rehabilitate Manila Bay.

“Listen to environmentalists and scientists instead of believing the ‘science’ of Antiporda. Listen to the petition of Manila residents who are concerned about the long term impact of the dolomite dumping in the city,” the group said, addressing the Manila local government unit.

The government’s ‘white sand dumping’ in Manila Bay first came to light on the first days of September as photos of the project surfaced and spread online.

Funds for ‘artificial’ beautification, nourishment hit

PAMALAKAYA said the budget used for Manila Bay white sand should have been more than enough to install mangrove forests that will serve as fish sanctuary, pollution filter, and coastal communities protection.

Other groups and countless netizens have said the funds could also have been used to support government’s COVID-19 response that has yet to see mass testing and more beneficiaries and continued aid to those affected. Only the poorest 18 to 23 million families were included in the government’s aid program that distributed P5,000 to P8,000 for two months but the country has been in various levels of lockdown and quarantine for six months already.

“Once the project is completed, we invite the public to enjoy the rehabilitated and nourished beach and see for themselves if it is harmful,” Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary and vice chair of the Manila Bay Task Force Eduardo Año said in a statement on September 12.

Año, a retired general and also vice chair of the government’s National Task Force COVID-19, said dolomite which was used as artificial white sand in Manila Bay “is a common material used in beach nourishment” in resorts around the world.

The dolomite was mined and crushed in Cebu and then transported to Manila Bay.

DILG Usec Jonathan Malaya said the project was only P28 million, contrary to reports that it cost the government P389 million, price of dolomite sand, transportation cost, taxes, and other fees.

“The project was approved by Congress under the 2019 General Appropriations Act (GAA), it underwent competitive bidding under RA 9184 and was awarded prior to the global pandemic. The government cannot simply stop a project when it is already under contractual obligation to proceed. We also have a responsibility to clean up and rehabilitate Manila Bay for ourselves and future generations,” said Malaya.

While government officials said that funds for Manila bay allocation cannot be reallocated, and specifically for COVID-19 funds as many wished, the DENR has given its share for the COVID-19 response funds from its budget. The Bayanihan to Heal as One Act gave President Rodrigo Duterte powers to reallocate funds for COVID-19 response.

“The DENR has complied with the directive to return 10 percent of our 2020 funding, which is roughly P1.069 billion, purposely to help in the COVID-19 response,” said DENR Usec for finance Atty. Ernesto Adobo, Jr.

The DENR said the white sand project was funded through a special purpose fund under the 2019 GAA intended for the rehabilitation of Manila Bay.

The P389-million funding was derived from the “contingency fund” of Duterte, which was released by the Department of Budget and Management in 2019 for the rehabilitation of Manila Bay. But the DILG, as well as the DENR, clarified that only P28 million of the P389 million went to the white sand makeover.

In the September 8 budget hearing, Muntinlupa Rep. Ruffy Biazon said a DENR official admitted that “the Manila Bay beach nourishment project isn’t in the Manila Bay Sustainable Development Masterplan as adopted by National Economic Development Administration, as well as the plan posted in the DENR website.”

Department of Education (DepEd) Secretary Leonor Briones answered in a government briefing on COVID-19 response on September 7 that her department would have used the funds for the white sand project for buying more gadgets and printing more self-learning materials if it was allocated to her office. Teachers have been complaining about the DepEd’s failure to provide laptops or tablets needed for distance learning as the repeatedly-suspended school opening on October 5 draws near.

Education officials earlier said that the agency’s budget is not enough to provide each of the 800,000 public school teachers with a laptop, which will cost around ₱27 billion. This would also be a dilemma for 22.2 million students in public schools. While schools, teachers and schools in the private sector were left to fend for their own as the government imposed the ‘distance learning’ mode over the face-to-face classes as it continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic after six months. COVID-19 cases continue to increase and thousands of new cases are reported each day in the Philippines.

Environmentally destructive and not sustainable

Many environmentalists have said the ‘white sand dumping’ in Manila Bay is not sustainable as it could just get washed out by typhoons and high tide.

Storms and the high tide could wash away the artificial white sand that the government dumped around Manila Bay, said University of the Philippines Resilience Institute executive director and disaster scientist Mahar Lagmay.

Lagmay said sand is “always transported from one place to the other” along beaches because “there’s a lot of energy that makes the materials move. The sand around Manila Bay comes from surrounding mountains and is naturally dark gray, he pointed out.

“It’s really going to be expensive if you want to continuously replenish the white sand there… That’s not sustainable,” Lagmay told ANC on September 4.

Meanwhile, Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso said the DENR told him “engineering works” were in place to keep the sand in place. He also said he was willing to spend money to replenish the sand if it gets washed away “10 years, 5 years from now… but not in this pandemic.”

A group of students in the country’s premiere science high school, Agham Youth-Pisay MC, talked about the negative effects of the white sand dumping in Manila bay.

However, DENR Usec Benny Antiporda said that dolomite is not harmful to the environment since dolomite can also be found in a sea coral and brushed aside comments from environmental groups that the white sand dumping might disrupt the ecosystem of the sea.

“They should also have an in-depth study before coming up with opinion. Iyong crushed dolomite boulders po, may calcium carbonate, at ganoon rin po ang content ng sea coral, kaya huwag po sila masyado negatibo,” Antiporda said.

Youth Strike 4 Climate Philippines in its Facebook page said that the government should “stop harvesting sand from other places just to beautify this dirty bay.”

Various groups and netizens have criticized how one place was destroyed to get the white sand to beautify Manila Bay.

On September 7, Mines and Geosciences Bureau Region 7 said they issued an Ore Transport Permit to transport dolomite from Alcoy, Cebu to Manila for Manila Bay’s white sand. Cebu Provincial Board Member John Ismael Borgonia said they were kept in the dark on the project and no coordination was made with them.

On September 8, Cebu Governor Gwendolyn Garcia issues a cease and desist order on September 8 to the Philippine Mining Service Corporation and the Dolomite Mining Corporation operating in Alcoy, Cebu, where the white sand for the Manila Bay beautification project was sourced.

Solve trash problem in the bay?

Antiporda said the white sand in the coastline of Manila bay will discourage people from littering and throwing trash in the sea.

“If you are going to look at it, pag may kulay puti po, ayaw nating marumihan ito,” Antiporda said in an interview on GMA 7 on September 4.

Antiporda likened the white sand project as a public information campaign telling people to not throw trash in the water.

However, trash is not thrown in the bay, but swept there from other tributaries.

Archdiocese of Manila apostolic administrator Bishop Broderick Pabillo said in Radyo Veritas that the ‘ill-timed’ project for beautification may only be temporary as the white sand might erode when a typhoon hits Metro Manila.

“We are not even certain if this white sand will be able to stay there since tons of trash fill up Manila Bay whenever there are typhoons,” he said.

ABS-CBN weather reporter and environment/wildlife show host Kim Atienza also said that trash is not thrown in Manila Bay, but swept there.

“During the Habagat, the Manila side is clean because the wind blows the trash towards Cavite. During Amihan, it is blown back,” said Atienza, also known as ‘Kuya Kim’ who dishes out trivia on anything under the sun, but mostly on environment and the natural world.

Environment groups, legislators, academe and netizens also averred that while the DENR aimed to ‘beautify’ the bay, the water remains dirty and unswimmable. The DENR, however, said cleaning tributaries and other considerations are all part of the plan, as is the white sand dumping.

Health hazard or good for mental health?

“Ito pong dolomite, base po sa pag-aaral, kapag na-inhale natin ito, may mga adverse reaction [sa] respiratory system, mainly,” Vergeire said in an online briefing on September 7.

[This dolomite, based on studies, if we inhale it, there are adverse reactions mainly on the respiratory system.]

Based on studies and medical literature, it can cause respiratory issues to a person, said Vergeire.

“Kapag napunta sa mata, magkakaroon ng kaunting irritation. Kapag na-ingest, magkakaroon ng gastro-intestinal discomfort, pagkakasakit ng tiyan at pagtatae…ito iyong mga minor effects,” added Vergeire.

[It it gets to our eyes, there can be a small irritation. If we ingest it, we will get gastro-intestinal discomfort, stomachache and loose bowel…these are the minor effects.]

The following day, in the budget deliberations of the DENR at the Lower House of Congress, DENR Sec. Roy Cimatu countered claims by experts, the DOH mainly, that dolomite dumped in Manila Bay will cause respiratory illnesses. Cimatu and other DENR officials faced House members to defend their agency’s proposed P25.6-billion budget for 2021.

Cimatu said there is indeed a harmful effect if you crush dolomite in a mining area without protective wear for your nose, it will be harmful because of the small dust particles and silica, which is a component of dolomite. But he said this is not a concern for the DENR project because the dolomite used is bigger and it is only during mining and crushing the dolomite that poses risks for inhalation.

Another day after, or two days after previously speaking of health risks of dolomite, the DOH said in a statement on September 9 that the public has no need to worry.

While the DOH stood by its earlier statement that dolomite dust can cause health problems, is said that the crushed dolomite used for the Manila Bay project was not the same, as explained by environment officials as “100 times bigger than dust, therefore does not get suspended in the air.”

“In terms of the general safety of the public who will be enjoying the shoreline once permitted, DOH assures that no untoward incidents will occur as a result of this endeavor,” said the Health agency.

Meanwhile, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said the effects of the white sand makeover for the benefits of the people’s mental health during this pandemic ‘cannot be quantified’. He said this in defense of the project to those saying the funds used could have been better used for the government’s COVID-19 response.

“I think ‘yung pagpapasyal sa mga lugar gaya ng Manila Bay na may white beach, hindi mo maqua-quantify ang epekto nyan pagdating sa mental health ng ating mga kababayan,” he said.

Legal violations of the white sand project?

Environment group Oceana PH says several laws have been violated by the DENR for dumping artificial white sand on Manila Bay as it failed to conduct environment impact assessment. On this, Antiporda said the agency don’t see the need for such assessment because the sand is just ‘beautification.’

Infrawatch Ph said that the DENR is violating its own regulations by ‘seeking an exemption’ for the white sand project, saying it does not need an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and an Environmental Compliance Certificate (ECC).

Manila Bay and its foreshore area has been declared as a special tourist zone as per Executive Order No. 69 s.1999, signed on February 17,1999 under then-president Joseph Estrada (who went on to become Manila mayor for two terms post his ouster in Edsa Dos), while the National Historical Commission of the Philippines declared the Manila Bay a National Historical Landmark in its Resolution no. 19, s. 2012.

Presidential Decree 1586 requires Environmentally Critical Projects and Areas (ECPs and ECAs) to obtain an ECC by submitting an EIA. ECAs, according to the DENR Administrative Order 03-30, include “areas set aside as aesthetic tourist spots” and “areas of unique …. historical interests”, among others.

Infrawatch Ph asserted that these government issuances show that the Manila Bay white sand project is a covered activity requiring an ECC.

Further, the group said the Supreme Court should ‘not wait for a case to be filed’ and should intervene under its Manila Bay Advisory Committee (MBAC) led by Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta, as this situation ‘presents a prima facie case for a Writ of Kalikasan in the Supreme Court, including a temporary environment protection order stopping the Manila Bay white sand project.’

The group said the SC should be informed that the DENR has not only violated its own rules, but also overstepped its mandate in Manila Bay, either based on SC’s continuing mandamus or President Rodrigo Duterte’s Manila Bay Task Force.

“Both bodies call for the cleanup, rehabilitation, restoration maintenance of the WATERS of Manila Bay to a level fit for swimming; and also to improve water quality through the reduction of coliform levels in all river systems and tributaries within Manila Bay. Both make no mention of a mandate to beautify a thin stretch of Manila Bay’s 190-kilometer coastline,” Infrawatch PH said.

Netizens have hit the white sand dumping in Manila Bay as part of government’s misplaced priorities during the pandemic.

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