Monday, July 31, 2006

Protecting the environment at Pangasinan

The following is my column for today July 31, 2006 at the op-ed section of the Manila Standard Today.

WE HAVE been driving for what seemed an eternity (in truth it had only been 30 minutes or so) along this dark, long and twisting stretch of road deep in the heart of Pangasinan when the breathtaking view suddenly hit us from out of nowhere. Looming below us was a dramatic tableau of structures and lights set against a panorama of an endless sea. At the nucleus was this mammoth machine bathed in lights and a giant chimney spewing white smoke. From where we were, the gigantic machine looked very alive and pulsating with action. The fact that it was after midnight made the scene quite surreal and reminded me very strongly of Close Encounters of the Third Kind; I kind of half-expected Richard Dreyfuss to materialize and announce to us that the spaceship has just landed. This was my first impression of the Mirant power plant in Sual, Pangasinan.

Mirant is one of the independent power producers that supply electricity to the National Power Corp. Its coal-powered plant in Sual supplies almost a quarter of the power requirements for the whole of Luzon. The plant earned national attention when it plunged the whole of Luzon into darkness a few years ago courtesy of 19 truckloads of jellyfish that mysteriously found their way into the plant’s cooling system. (An earthquake occurred a few days later and doomsday sages went out of whack connecting the two phenomena—the sudden appearance of millions of jellyfish and the earthquake).

Whoever requires proof that industrialization and protecting the environment can be mutually inclusive concepts should visit this plant. Although I have read about how serious Mirant is about fulfilling its corporate social responsibility, even I was not prepared at the level of attention and earnestness they devote to protecting the environment. Everything in its Sual Plant is spick and span and almost everything here borders on the sterile. For instance, despite the fact that the Plant uses coal to generate power, the air inside it remains invisible, which is what it should be. This is a welcome relief for all of us who come from Manila where the air is so thick with all kinds of pollutants you can actually see, touch, taste, and smell. I saw healthier trees here than in, say, Antipolo or Laguna. Mirant indeed walks the talk when it comes to protecting the environment and the results are evident. There are safeguards for everything here and all by-products of the power generation process is accounted for, treated, and properly disposed of.

Mirant cares about the communities where they operate, and a clear example of this is that it processes sea water into potable water for its every day needs in order not to deplete the underground water reserve, which the communities around the area rely on. There are other worthy initiatives, including reforestation efforts. Mirant plants pine trees since it’s the tree variety that perfectly matches the properties of the soil in the area; thus, there are probably more pine trees here than in Baguio.

In short, here is proof that protecting the environment is very possible even in industries where inherent risks pose clear and present danger. All it takes is political will, science, and vigilance. It can be done provided there are no compromises in terms of safeguards and monitoring. I do hope that things will remain the same even when and if Mirant becomes a 100 percent Filipino company.

Since we were already in the area, we took a day trip to the Hundred Islands, the vaunted pride of the province. The first and last time I visited the islands was in 1989 and the experience was so dreadful I swore I would never come back unless something was done to improve the conditions of the islands. Back then, the islands were filthy and were literally dump for human and material waste. But I have heard about the great things Alaminos Mayor Nani Braganza has been doing to reposition the islands as a prime ecotourism destination so I threw reservations to the wind and braced myself for the worst. We took a yacht from the Mirant Plant in Sual and traversed the Lingayen Gulf toward Quezon Island, the biggest and most developed among the hundred islands.

Although I still cannot say that the islands are now in tip-top shape as a tourist destination, I am happy to report that the filth and the stench have at least been reduced considerably. Efforts to protect the islands are now more palpable, although it will take more than a few signs and some infrastructure to achieve the goal. Quezon Island, for example, still reeks of neglect. Although there is now a toilet on top of the island, plumbing is still very primitive and maintenance remains shoddy. Worse, the island continues to suffer from the shamelessness of vandals and litterbugs.

Keeping the islands pristine cannot just be the responsibility of the local government. It was very disheartening to note, for example, that while our group took pains to make sure that we picked up all our trash and brought it with us when we left the island (we were briefed by the Mirant people to leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but pictures), others weren’t as conscientious. To my horror, I saw a number of people washing their food containers and utensils outside the toilets on top of the island. They threw their leftover food carelessly on the ground (no wonder there were rats and flies in the island). Some just left their trash lying around. It didn’t help that a mound of plastic containers (mostly plastic water and softdrink bottles) was obviously the handiwork of the caretakers of the island. They were probably stockpiling the plastic bottles with the intention of selling them for recycling purposes. The intention may be meritorious in some ways, but a mound of trash is still unsightly and sends the wrong message.

Nevertheless, the islands are truly amazing and awe-inspiring and it can be made more so. The sand feels like powder and the waters are clear and ideal for snorkeling and bathing. The cliffs and the rock formations are beautiful to behold and many of the islands offer a host of natural attractions. I particularly found the Cathedral Island awesome! Some islands are havens to birds and it was truly an experience watching flocks of birds perched on the branches of trees.

I hope that the local governments succeed in striking a balance between making the islands a top tourism draw while at the same time maintaining their natural beauty and wonder. To do this, they have to go out on a limb to educate the local people about the wisdom of protecting the islands and the tourists about the proper ways to enjoy the island as recreation site. Otherwise, it would probably be a good idea to limit human traffic to the islands to ensure that they remain a source of pride for Filipinos for generations to come.

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