Solar power firm fined P1 million for environmental violations in Rizal

Tarra Quismundo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at May 01 2019 05:23 PM | Updated as of May 01 2019 10:55 PM

Macabud village councilor Nestor Villeza looks over ATN's Solar's project site in Rodriguez, Rizal. Residents have been complaining that the project has damaged the environment and displaced residents in the upland community. Michael Joe Delizo, ABS-CBN News

MANILA - The environment department has fined a solar power firm more than P1 million for several violations in its project area in Rizal province, including destruction of crops, failure to stop soil erosion and debris deposit in waterways, and lack of proper permits to cut trees and waste discharge. 

In a ruling released in March, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources' Environmental Management Bureau (DENR-EMB) in Calabarzon penalized ATN Philippines Solar Energy Group Inc. for a total of 21 violations in operating a 30-megawatt solar power project and quarrying in Barangay Macabud, Rodriguez, Rizal in response to complaints from residents.

Locals have long been decrying ATN's activities in their community, complaining of environmental degradation, lack of consultation, and the displacement of residents, among others. 

The ruling, signed by DENR Calabarzon's Officer-in-Charge Regional Director Noemi Paranada, found that ATN violated several conditions under its environmental compliance certificates (ECCs) for the two projects in the upland barangay. 

“… Respondent is hereby directed to pay the total amount of P1,025,000 for violation of conditions of its environmental compliance certificates," read the ruling, a copy of which was obtained by ABS-CBN News. 

“This Office finds substantial evidence that would show that respondent indeed failed to comply with the aforementioned ECC Conditions.”

The regional environment office cited Article 2, Section 16 of the 1987 Constitution, which "“provides that every citizen has a right to a balanced and healthful ecology." 

"This right to a healthy environment has been affirmed by the Supreme Court as an enforceable right in the landmark case of Oposa vs. Factoran," read the 19-page ruling. 

The July 1993 high court decision halted the issuance of timber cutting permits, recognizing the doctrine of intergenerational responsibility for the environment. 

"This right carries with it the correlative duty of not impairing the environment, otherwise, sanctions may be provided for the occurrence of environmental imbalance," read the EMB ruling. 

For the solar power project, ATN was fined for failure to secure a barangay clearance, environmental permits and tree cutting permits at the project site, failure to mitigate environmental damage including soil erosion to a nearby creek, failure to submit compliance monitoring reports, failure to appoint a pollution control officer, and failure to install a billboard with information on the project operation. 

For the land development project, the firm was fined for failure to stop soil erosion and prevent debris from its quarry from filling natural waterways, the destruction of vegetable gardens and root crops, failure to build a drainage system for effluents or liquid waste, lack of a proper waste management scheme, failure to secure proper permits, failure to appoint a pollution control officer, failure to secure tree-cutting permits, and failure to file compliance monitoring reports. 

The EMB, meanwhile, waived fines for complaints that ATN failed to implement information, education and communication plans for the projects and a social development program to support displaced residents. 

The firm had shown "sufficient proof" of compliance, including the employment of locals and the conduct of information programs as certified by the barangay. 

Macabud residents filed an initial complaint in August 2017, saying ATN's activities in their community "caused environmental damage which affected the properties and livelihood" of locals and those from nearby towns and cities. 

DENR-EMB's inspection in September of the same year found that "respondent's project implementation violated the terms and conditions of its environmental compliance certificate."

In February 2018, the environment office then investigated a complaint from the barangay council that ATN's quarrying activities were "denuding the adjacent forests and filling Sapang Lilid with debris from the quarry." 

The following month, the EMB issued a notice of violation for non-compliance, validating the barangay's complaints. 

ATN'S DEFENSE 

In defending its solar power project, ATN said in a December 2017 reply that it held consultation with local officials for the project. It also committed to hire locals, follow labor laws on safety hazards, implement siltation control measures, prevent soil erosion, place silt ponds, appoint safety and pollution control officers, and apply for tree-cutting and discharge permits. 

On the complaint against its quarrying activities, meanwhile, ATN said in an explanation filed in May 2018 that it would prevent soil erosion, vowed to plant trees along creeks, banks and shores, repair its damaged drainage system, and apply for necessary tree-cutting and discharge permits. 

It said there was no effluent discharge from the project as it was still under construction. The firm also asserted that there was no violation of ECC conditions in its construction of a crushing plant as the certificate covers the processing of excess materials, for which the structure is meant.

As to damaged crops, ATN cited a resolution from the Rizal Provincial Prosecution Office saying that "some crop owners are not entitled to compensation as they have planted their crops 'in bad faith'." It said it provided compensation for 13 claimants, while there were ongoing negotiations with 35 others. 

LAND DEVELOPMENT PROJECT VIOLATES CEASE AND DESIST ORDER VS QUARRYING IN RIZAL - PENRO

Regional environment officials initiated another investigation in April 2018 after locals complained of their eviction from the community. 

The EMB issued another notice of violation against ATN in June 2018 "with respect to the same violations cited for the land development project." 

In January 2019, the EMB received a memorandum from the Rizal Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Officer that cited results of its evaluation of documents filed by ATN. 

The assessment found that ATN "has no necessary clearance from the concerned government agencies nor the required consultation for the social acceptability of the project." 

It also found that ATN's land development project is "in contrast to the Cease and Desist Order issued by the DENR Secretary for all quarrying activities in the Rizal province."

The Rizal Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office (PENRO) also found a "prima facie impression" that ATN cut trees without a DENR permit, as the provincial environment office only received an application in October 2018. 

It also noted that "there is a piecemeal requesting process of ECCs and other permits from concerned government offices" and "non-disclosure of the entire project plan," preventing the DENR "from properly categorizing ATN's project in the right project group." 

ATN entered into a solar energy service contract with the Department of Energy in May 2011 and received an ECC in December of the same year. 

The project "garnered the support of the local and national government" as it received provincial endorsement and a letter of support from the Executive Secretary at the time, according to the Rizal PENRO in its assessment.