Poisoned lake, quayside threaten residents in 2 Puerto Princesa villages

PUERTO PRINCESA CITY — Over 10,000 residents in two barangays in this city are in danger of being gravely affected by mercury poisoning, according to a joint study of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the Department of Health (DOH).

The said residents dwell in Barangays Tagburos and Sta. Lourdes, which are situated near the abandoned mercury mine site of the Palawan Quicksilver Mines, Inc. (PQMI).

Sta. Lourdes, in particular, has over 8,000 residents, many of whom live near a five-hectare pit lake and a quayside that was constructed out of mine-waste calcines.

A summary report acquired by the Philippine News Agency (PNA) from the City Environment and Natural Resources Office (CENRO) Wednesday claimed these residents are at risk of exposure to mercury contamination in various degrees as they are continuously exposed to PQMI mine tailings, and remain consuming seafood caught from nearby Honda Bay.

According to Sta. Lourdes barangay councilor Gerardo Valena, the findings were presented to them in Power Point in May by the city government, and out of it, the preliminary recommendation is to evacuate 74-80 families residing near the five-hectare pit lake, which was the former mine tailing pond of PQMI.

It said that residents in Sta. Lourdes have elevated mercury in their blood of 76.40 percent, and 86.66 percent in Tagburos.

Out of 91 hair samples collected, five showed elevated mercury of over 10 parts per million (ppm). Majority of residents in both barangays also have presence of copper, which are 86.66 percent in Tagburos, and 97.75 percent in Sta. Lourdes.

The study furthered that around 38 percent of Sta. Lourdes residents are suffering from lingering mercury poisoning.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), long exposure to mercury may impact on human health such as on the nervous system, digestive and immune systems, and on lungs, kidneys and eyes.

The report went on to disclose that the exposure to mercury by the residents may have been due to the ingestion of seafood, such as tainted fish and other marine products.

The presence of methylmercury, a bioaccumulative environmental toxicant, in human hair samples is indicative that contamination is by way of fish intake.

Valena said that out of 104 residents, who provided samples for mercury contamination testing, 39 turned positive of poisoning and most of them were children.

He said signs of the Minamata disease have been noted on the positive cases.

“Many of those tested are showing signs of having the Minamata Disease, like discoloration in gums, difficulty in concentrating and the likes,” he said.

What he said was also contained in the report which claimed affected residents have symptoms of gingivitis, gum discoloration, nervousness, lack of sensation, headache, memory loss, and problem in the respiratory system.

But the most serious signs of Minamata Disease, which are not far from happening, said Valena, are ataxia or lack of muscle control, numbness in the hands and feet, general muscle weakness, narrowing of the field of vision and damage to hearing and speech.

In fact, one such case exists in Sta. Lourdes, according to him, and she’s 11-year-old Nica Edradan. But she has never been tested, and Valena wants the next examination to include her.

Nica, whose mother Marivic, 43, is no longer working to take care of her, does nothing each day except drop saliva uncontrollably from her mouth if she’s not twisting and turning herself irrepressibly on her lap.

“I don’t know how she ended up this way. We were told by the doctor that she has cerebral palsy, but we don’t know why because her siblings are not like this,” Marivic said.

Marivic also wanted Nica’s blood and hair samples to be tested by the team from the DOH to determine if her cerebral palsy was caused by mercury poisoning.

“I also want her to be part of the test so we will know how to help her,” Marivic told the PNA, recalling that when she was still in her 20s, she used to pan for mercury with her parents in the river near the PQMI.

“I don’t know if that has something to do with her illness. Her father, my husband Ernie, also panned for mercury in the same river,” she said.

Valena, on the other hand, said that residents in Sta. Lourdes, no longer want to point fingers at anyone regarding the mercury poisoning.

“Our main concern right now is how we can be helped. Enough with politics and blaming, what we want is what are their plans for us,” he said.

Valena is worried because medication for each affected resident could be from Php37,000.00-Php200,000.00 and is long-term.

Eventually, Valena accepts that Sta. Lourdes, and even Tagburos may be “dead towns” as the residents all need to be relocated if they want to be safe from the chronic effects of being exposed to mercury poisoning.

Immediately, however, the city government said 74 families living around the lake need to be evacuated first.

Add to that, Mayor Luis Marcaida III said they will make a parallel investigation to determine the actuality of the report from the DENR, the DOH, and the Mines & Geosciences Bureau (MGB).

This will be done by the CENRO, the City Engineering Office (CEO), and the City Health Office (CHO), together with individuals from the academe and non-government organizations.

“As to the residents of the pit lake, we will find a relocation site. Phase by phase we will relocate and we will look if the city government has an available site,” said Marcaida.

Residents around the pit lake have already been told to stop catching fish there.

The PQMI operated the mine site in Sta. Lourdes from 1954 to 1978. Celeste Anna R. Formoso/PNA-northboundasia.com