Suspended Philippine nickel miner mounts first legal challenge to govt crackdown

MANILA, Oct 26 (Reuters) - A suspended Philippine nickel miner said on Wednesday it has sued government environment agencies for a nearly four-month stoppage of its operations, in the first legal challenge to the state’s environmental crackdown on the mining sector.

The Philippines is the world’s top nickel ore supplier and an environmental audit that has halted a quarter of its 41 mines plus the risk that 20 more may be shuttered has fuelled a rally in global nickel prices.

Benguetcorp Nickel Mines Inc’s (BNMI) mine in Zambales province, north of the capital Manila, is among 10 suspended for environmental infractions in a government clampdown on damage from mining in July and August.

“Seeing that BNMI is left with no other viable administrative remedy, it is constrained to elevate to the Courts the matter of the unlawful suspension of its nickel mining operations,” the company said in a statement.

The company filed a “petition for certiorari with injunction to assail the suspension order” jointly issued by the Mines and Geosciences Bureau, Environmental Management Bureau and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources regional offices with a regional trial court in Pampanga province, said Anna Montes, spokeswoman for parent firm Benguet Corp.

The petition was filed on Oct. 21 and the first hearing is set on Nov. 9, Montes told Reuters by phone.

The Zambales mine of BNMI was among the first mines suspended by the government on July 8.

The suspensions followed “various complaints of environmental degradation,” according to Leo Jasareno, who was then director of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau. He said the suspensions would be in effect until the companies complied with conditions set by the agency.

BNMI said the government environment officials rejected its proposal to address the problems. It said it was forced to lay off more than 1,000 workers since its suspension.

“To avoid irreversible financial damage to its business and ease the hardship on other affected stakeholders, the company has no choice but to resort to legal action to obtain an equitable resolution to this controversy,” it said.

Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Regina Lopez, who spearheaded the mining audit, did not immediately return a request for comment.

On top of the audit that was completed in August, Lopez said on Oct. 14 that her agency will review all environmental permits previously granted to the minerals industry.

Reporting by Manolo Serapio Jr., editing by David Evans