Why I Still Don’t Like Geothermal in Irosin

Anti-geothermal protest action in Sorsogon. PHOTO BY BicolToday.com
PHOTO BY BicolToday.com

By Dr. Eddie Dorotan

About two decades ago, in the early 90’s, Irosin was awakened by the cutting of trees in the slopes of Mount Bulusan. A farmer complained about a road opening for an undisclosed project in Barangay Bagsangan. Nobody knew why trees have to be cut down and why clearings have to be done. SAFSCO (Saint Anne’s Family Service Cooperative), a farmers’ group organized by the Holy Spirit Sisters in Irosin was the first to know that the ongoing stealthy activities was already part of the geothermal exploration by the PNOC (Philippine National Oil Company).

I was a resident physician then of the Irosin District Hospital involved with community-based health programs with the Holy Spirit Sisters and the Diocese of Sorsogon. I was alarmed with the arrogance of the PNOC personnel proceeding with projects without consulting the community. It also made me curious why the government, both at the local and national levels, allowed the PNOC to proceed with the exploration without even informing the people of Irosin. And I found out that I was not the only one who is really apprehensive about the project. There were more – farmers, teachers, the religious, the professionals, students, and the youth. So we banded together and formed SAGIP, the Sectors Against Geothermal in Irosin Project. We demanded an immediate stop to the project and pushed for a dialogue with the proponents.

In a dialogue with the PNOC, we were regaled with the supposed advantages of the geothermal project – employment, economic development, and energy generation purported to have less adverse effects. The PNOC then claimed that their new technology could actually enable them to re-inject waste materials back to the bowels of the earth. On the other hand, SAGIP countered that the PNOC-claimed benefits are far less compared with the enormous cost of deforestations and land clearings that can actually cause erosions induced by typhoons and earthquakes that we have aplenty of. Moreover, the proposed exploration sites were in the vicinity, and even possibly, within the protected area of the Mount Bulusan Natural Park. There are also exploration and eventual extraction sites that are proximate as well as within the populated areas of Irosin, Juban and Bulusan.

The Tiwi geothermal experience in Albay does not show us a good picture. We actually observed the disappearance of their hot springs and waterfalls, the rise in their atmospheric temperatures, and the increases in respiratory illnesses in their locality. The Tongonan geothermal project in Leyte did not give us something to be desired for either. Their rice production decreased by 50% because of their boron contaminated rice fields courtesy of geothermal effluents.

In the end, the majority of the community said no. And we were glad PNOC did not insist to proceed with the project.

Fast forward to February 2010, the outgoing Secretary Angelo Reyes of the DOE (Department of Energy) signed a midnight agreement with SKI (Summa Kummaga Industries) for the geothermal exploration in the slopes of Mount Bulusan. Like a well-kept military secret, nobody except them knows about this very public project that is being started. I was told that after the May elections of 2010, the local officials of the Second District of Sorsogon were approached by the agents of SKI regarding the project. I was also informed that “some consultations” were made in Bulusan, Juban, Irosin and Casiguran. To date, I know that the people of Bulusan and Irosin with local government officials are against the project. The high local officials of Juban though consented saying that it is still exploratory anyway.

I was informed that on the 6th of December 2011, SKI will present its project to Governor Raul Lee and the Sangguniang Panlalawigan of Sorsogon in the hope that it will get support and approval from the provincial leaders.

After two decades, I still don’t like a geothermal project in Irosin. And I still have a number of questions:

Do we know who SKI is? Who are the people behind it? What is its track record in geothermal projects?

Is the technology of geothermal explorationn and development today different two decades ago? If so, what are the differences?

What are its benefits to the local communities? Who will benefit most from this project? Why are electric costs higher in the geothermal areas of Bicol than the rest of Luzon?

Was a thorough environmental impact assessment done already? What are the negative impacts of the project and how does the proponent intend to mitigate them? Will the communities be safe not only in the short term but also in the long term?

Mount Bulusan is an active volcano. The slopes in Barangay Cogon, Bagsangan, Mapaso and Monbon in Irosin are eroding. We have more rains than before. Climate change is happening. Unpredictable weather disturbances cause so much danger from our already fragile ecosystems and so much vulnerability in the surrounding communities.

Are we guaranteed that nothing adverse will happen to our environment and to us people living near or within geothermal fields once we disembowel the earth below us for geothermal resource? Are we and the next generations to come better off with an extractive industry like the geothermal project? Or are we better off without the geothermal project even as we help conserve and help our mother nature heal? Are we better off by protecting Mount Bulusan Natural Park and our surrounding ecosystems instead?

I am still not convinced that geothermal project is better for us.

I still don’t like geothermal exploration and eventual extraction for our people and our community.

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