The wind in Lamao carries with it a certain smell of sulfur and an amount of ash that later covers the road. It is like New Year’s Eve, except that there are no fireworks and certainly nothing to celebrate. This is everyday life for the barangay [community] of 18,000 in Bataan, in the northern part of the Philippines.
Petron Corporation built the coal-fired power plant in Lamao, which has been in operation for two years. San Miguel Corporation through its subsidiary SMC Global Power Holdings Corp. has been building other coal-fired power plants in the area which are set to be online by 2016 and 2017. More expansions are eyed as Ramon Ang, president of San Miguel, has been openly aggressive in building coal-fired power plants in Bataan and other parts of the country.
These powerplants, on the main island of Luzon, represent a conundrum for the government in Manila. Despite the threat of climate chance and a public commitment to renewable energy in the face of more intense storms and rising sea waters, the government is building coal-fired powerplants at a feverish pace. In June, energy officials issued environmental compliance certificates for 21 new coal-fired plants to meet the country’s burgeoning energy needs. According to a 2014 Greenpeace report, at least 45 new coal-fired plants are to become operational by 2020, increasing carbon dioxide emissions by 64.4 million to 79.8 million tonnes a year.
Despite the ravages of Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda, which many climate experts say took its superhuman strength from the warming climate, and despite the pleas of Philippine climate officials in international forums, President Benigno S. Aquino appears to have little understanding or sympathy. In his 2013State of the Nation Address, he said: “Did they happen to mention that renewable energy is also more expensive—from the cost of building the plants to the eventual price of energy? Did they mention that it cannot provide the baseload—the capacity required to make sure brownouts do not occur? If you put up a wind-powered plant, what do you do when there is no wind? If you put up a solar plant, what do you when the sky is cloudy?”
According to Earthjustice, coal ash from burning coal in power plants is toxic and can cause cancer, respiratory illness, neurological damage, and developmental problems. The toxic level of coal ash which mostly come from arsenic, mercury, lead, and chromium, also poison drinking water sources. In fact, a percentage of the population has acquired respiratory problems and water has recently been contaminated.
Some 27 kilometers away from Lamao, Barangay Lucanin in Mariveles faces the same hazards: the sea, their source of livelihood, has been contaminated with coal ash, and residents have acquired skin diseases. According to Derek Cabe of the Nuclear Free Bataan Movement, coal ash waste can reach a 40 kilometer radius. But coal ash in the area isn’t only brought by the wind, Petron Corporation also dumps their coal ash waste in the area, which the company later turns into cement. Lucanin has seen the effects of this waste as the community experiences high morbidity of upper respiratory diseases.
But ash fall is just the tip of the iceberg. Residents of Lamao have been facing violence and harassment amidst the fight against their eviction from their own land to accommodate the new coal-fired power plants by SMC. The community has been up in arms, especially with 110 families facing eviction— but not without cost.