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7 Dec 2022

Karol Ilagan, Andrew W. Lehren, Anna Schecter & Rich Schapiro, NBC News

Philippines: Study finds unsafe levels of hexavalent chromium, a cancer-causing chemical in a nickel mining area in Palawan; Nickel Asia denies causation

"How the rise of electric cars endangers the ‘last frontier’ of the Philippines", 7 December 2021


[...] The mine, Rio Tuba, plays a vital role in satisfying the global demand for a mineral more coveted than ever due in part to the explosion of the electric car industry.

The raw nickel dug out of the ground here ends up in the lithium batteries of plug-in vehicles manufactured by Tesla, Toyota and other automakers [...].


Sumitomo Metal Mining holds a roughly 25 percent stake in the company that owns the Rio Tuba mine – Nickel Asia, which is based in the Philippines.  


In 2010, the Indigenous peoples advocacy group Ancestral Land/Domain Watch and the Centre for Biocultural Diversity of the University of Kent in the United Kingdom released a sharply-worded report calling for an end to mining operations in the area. 

“The continuation of mining activities in Bulanjao will irremediably damage the best conserved forest in the southern tip of Palawan, with predictable adverse consequences for the food production capacity of both indigenous and migrant farmers communities living at the foot of this mountain range,” the report said. 


Two years later, the nonprofit environmental group, Friends of the Earth Japan, announced that it completed an environmental field study in Palawan that it said found unsafe levels of hexavalent chromium, a cancer-causing chemical that was at the center of the Julia Roberts film “Erin Brockovich,” in one of the rivers near the mine.


[...] Rio Tuba is facing a significant obstacle: tribal leaders in Rizal oppose the expansion. Under the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act of 1997, mining companies are required to seek the consent of the Indigenous residents living in the lands where they plan to set up operations.


Baylon, the Nickel Asia spokesman, pushed back at the idea that the mine was contaminating the water. He said Rio Tuba’s initial sampling in December 1996 showed “escalated values of hexavalent chromium in nickel mining water before the peak of the mining operation.” 

He said Rio Tuba conducted a 2018-2019 study with the National Institute of Geological Sciences at the University of the Philippines, Diliman, that showed hexavalent chromium in surface waters exiting the mine were at low levels while the metal in groundwater was generally undetected.

“The mine drainage system is designed to direct the mine surface runoff straight to the Rio Tuba River and not for drinking, irrigation or agricultural purposes,” Baylon said. “Therefore, it is very unlikely that mine waters, or Cr6+ (hexavalent chromium) will enter the local water supplies.”


Representatives from Tesla and Toyota did not respond to requests for comment. A Panasonic spokesperson declined to comment.