By Purple Romero
An environmental lawyer – who helped stop the indiscriminate dumping of coal ash by a coal-fired power plant (CFPP), citing its negative effects on health – said the Department of Health (DOH) must conduct a health audit of all 19 existing coal-fired power plants to help local and national government officials determine the real costs of operating CFPPs.
“The DOH has issued a memorandum, but to go as far as having a health audit, hindi pa,” noted Jose Aaron Pedrosa, who was part of the group Freedom from Debt Coalition-Cebu which secured a temporary protection order against the coal ash dumping of the Korean Electric Power Corp.-Salcon Power Corp. in Naga, Cebu in 2010.
The DOH issued a memorandum in 2010 warning the public about the hazardous effects of coal on health after a coal spill in Batangas Bay, but Pedrosa said this is not enough. “If we have an environmental audit, we must have a health audit,” he said.
He added that a health audit in sites where CFPPs have operated for the past 5-10 years must be conducted to establish a trend on the health impacts of operating coal plants. “What are the industries there, what are the emissions being contributed – what are their health implications? That will tell you if CFPPS contributed to the problem.”
Pedrosa’s call came as the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Lipa and different civil society groups launched the Piglas Batangas! Piglas Pilipinas! Break Free from Fossil Fuels initiative on April 6. The initiative aims to make the push against dirty energy an election issue amid the government’s aggressive expansion of coal energy in the country, with 27 new plants in the offing involving a total of 57 boiler units with combined capacity of 8,419 megawatts (MW).
The country’s campaign is part of the upcoming global movement against fossil fuels “Break Free From Fossil Fuels 2016,” which is spearheaded by at least 20 local and international organizations and will be conducted from May 4-14.
Weak monitoring capacity
Pedrosa, also the secretary-general of the Sanlakas partylist group, explained that a health audit will fill the gap of having an independent analysis of the health impacts of coal-fired power plants.
Data from the DOH and local government units will provide much-needed information that is beyond those that are given by multi-partite monitoring teams, which comprise representatives from both government and non-government groups.
While multi-partite monitoring teams are composed of different sectors, another environmental lawyer, Jennifer Ramos, pointed out in the paper “Striking a Balance: Coal-Fired Power Plants in the Philippines’ Energy Future,” that they are funded however through the Environmental Guarantee Fund established by the CFPP company, posing a conflict of interest.
Another way to monitor health impacts is through the monitoring stations operated by the Environmental Management Bureau (EMB), the body under the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) that issues an environmental compliance certificate to companies seeking to operate CFPPS.
Ramos wrote that under Republic Act No. 8749 or the Clean Air Act, the DENR and the EMB’s monitoring stations are supposed to measure the ambient air quality.
When data gathered by the monitoring station show that areas already suffer from a high level of ambient air pollutants, another source of pollution such as a coal plant must be barred from being established and operated in the said areas, which by then have already been designated as non-attainment areas.
But here’s the catch – Ramos wrote that according to the National Air Quality Status Report (NAQSR) for 2012-2013, the country only has 9 monitoring stations and that out of —- sites where CFPPs operate, only two have their respective monitoring stations – Davao city and Naga, Cebu.
Environews tried to get the views of the DENR on this and we were directed to Michael Matias, head of the Environmental Impact Assessment chief of EMB. We were told that Matias, however, is out of the office.
With regard to the proposed health audit, we spoke with Lyndon Lee Suy, spokesman of the DOH. He directed us to the media relations office for information about effects of CFPPs on health, but said they are not yet ready to comment on conducting a possible health audit.
Different LGUs, different levels of transparency?
Pedrosa said that in the absence of a tight monitoring system from the DENR, the LGUs must step in and implement a rigorous monitoring system. Even this, however, is problematic.
The 15-year-old Clean Air Act code was supposed to have pushed LGUs to install airshed monitoring boards which will track emissions from industries. Pedrosa said not all LGUs have activated their monitoring boards, however.
Aside from the presence of an airshed monitoring board, a key component that must also be strengthened is the openness of rural health units (RHUs) in sharing data to the public.
Pedrosa said that in Naga, they were fortunate that the RHUS provided them baseline data. “Wala pa yung coal plant pero may existing na CFPP across. Mataas yung mortality and morbidity incidence, mataas yung upper respiratory tract infection, mataas incidence ng cancer. The study was from the rural health units given by Naga officials, with from data 2009-2012. In 2012, the pattern was rising – the presence ng CFPPs may have aggravated it,” he said.
The Sanlakas secretary-general said they are now using this data to oppose the establishment of a 300-MW coal plant in Cebu City.
RHUs are not always accessible, however. Rueben Muni, climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace, said they encountered RHUs from an LGU in Luzon which denied that a CFPP even exists in their area.
“We saw it with our own eyes na may CFPP, but the response to our formal letter from the municipal health office is that there was no existing na operational coal-fired power plant in their municipality, for reasons that we do not understand.”
Muni said they are considering legal actions so they can be given the data they need. He added that they support Pedrosa’s call for the DOH to conduct a health audit. Greenpeace is working with Health Care Without Harm to collate data on health impacts from the DOH, but Muni said the national office also lacks the data they need.