Bishop Manolo de los Santos of the Diocese of Virac, Catanduanes, is up in arms over a proposed coal mine in the island province.  Other bishops have joined in and intend to ask Pope Benedict XVI to support their crusade.

Mining is regulated under the 1995 Mining Act, considered the most advanced mining law in the world.  It took a horde of engineers, geologists, sociologists, lawyers and legislators nine years to craft the law.  How come no bishop ever said anything during those years the bill was being debated in Congress?

Later, in a landmark decision, the Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of the law.  The Court also stressed the principle that the mining resources of the country are the property of the entire Filipino people and not only of those living on top of the ore bodies.

The 8,000-hectare grant is the maximum limit allowed on one exploration permit.  At the exploratory stage, the size and character of the ore body is determined.  The ground area of the ore body is determined electronically.  The depth of the ore body is determined by drilling three-inch holes every 500 meters.  With all these data on hand, the engineers can figure out the commercial viability of the project.

The newspapers have said that the ore body of the Catanduanes project is worth P6.2 billion.  By law, the towns affected by the coal mine will get a fixed share of this sum.  Also, the coal mine will create jobs in the communities.

The bishops complain of pollution of waterways, destruction of the biodiversity and the environment.  But in a coal mine, there is no chemical process involved.  A coal mine is like digging for gravel.

If the ore body is deep in the earth, then a mine shaft is dug up.  The coal is brought up mechanically, not chemically.  There is, of course, the danger of explosion, but this is inherent in coal mining and can be minimized.

If the ore body is located near the surface, then you have open-pit mining , as in Marinduque and in Toledo, Cebu.  The overburden is bulldozed away, but after the mining operations are over, the law requires that the original landscape be restored.

The bishops will point to the danger to human life.  Of course, mining is dangerous.  When you dig a large hole deep into the earth, you never know what forces you might unleash.  But the death rate in mining is relatively low.  The celebrated case of Marinduque Mines some years back did not result in any death.  Certainly, more Filipinos die on our highways than in our mines.

Finally, the bishops will say that what is legal is not necessarily moral.  So, let us discuss the moral issues of mining.

In His infinite wisdom, God endowed the Philippines with mining resources estimated to be worth over three billion American dollars, enough to wipe out our national debt.  In fact, there was a time when the mining industry accounted for 25 percent of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  Today, that figure is down to less than two percent.

But, God works in paradoxes.  In the words of Bishop Fulton Sheen, God writes straight with crooked lines.  He did not pave Ayala Avenue with gold.  In 1,000 kilos of commercial grade ore, there is one solitary gram of gold.  Then, the ore is not buried knee-deep in Loyola Heights.  The ore is found deep in distant, far away mountain ranges.  We need mining engineers and geologists, armed with expensive equipment, to find those ore bodies.

If we are to stop mining altogether, as some bishops have proposed by asking for a full repeal of the mining act, are we not turning our back on God?

I find it downright hypocritical when bishops take an aggressive anti-mining stance.  The Church is the greatest beneficiary of the mining industry.  Cathedrals and basilicas soar to the skies on skeletons of structural steel.  I have not been to Virac in fifty years.  But the residence of Bishop de los Santos could not have been built without mining products.  Finally, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is performed on a marble slab.

As he raises the chalice and the paten during the Offertory of the Mass, Bishop de los Santos should ponder for a moment where all the gold came from.

When the Bishop’s petition reaches the Vatican, I am sure that Pope Benedict XVI, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, will tell the Bishops, “Follow the law of the land.  If you think the law should be amended, work with your legislators.”

May the Saints protect and preserve us from meddlesome Bishops!


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