IROSIN, Sorsogon—In the 1990s, the locals successfully blocked attempts of the Philippine National Oil Co. (PNOC) to put up a geothermal power plant in the area, Irosin Coalition Against Geothermal (ICAG) Chairman Dr. Precy D. Gante told the Business Mirror on May 19.
After two decades, the people of Irosin continue to stand up against advocates of geothermal energy, this time the Department of Energy (DOE) and contractor Summa Kumagai Inc. (SKI), who want to set up a multimillion-dollar geothermal power plant in the town, Dr. Gante said.
Gante, a physician, made the statement when told the current proponents of geothermal energy are conducting a new round of information campaign in the area.
The people of Irosin already showed overwhelming disapproval of the project when SKI began exploration in 2010, she said.
“Based on a survey, 92.8 percent of the people in Irosin are against the geothermal project,” she said. “All the 28 barangays passed a resolution supporting a Sangguniang Bayan resolution opposing it.”
The survey was conducted by the Asian Institute of Management in April 2012, Gante said.
Exploration stopped for a few years due to protests, but the DOE and SKI are prepared to talk again with locals to set the geothermal effort in motion.
Public sentiment against the energy project was also expressed in the recent local election, said Celenia J. Cal Ortiz, ICAG research committee chairman.
“The new set of leaders, from municipal mayor down to the seats in Sangguniang Bayan, is opposed to the geothermal project,” she said. “The candidates who are associated with the project were rejected.”
Gante expressed profound concern over human exposure to hazards entailing geothermal operations.
She said arsenic concentration is high in all geothermal sites, adding the deeper the operation goes down, the higher the concentration.
“Arsenic is converted into other compounds but never destroyed once outside of the soil,” she said. “It contaminates water, including sources of drinking water.”
She said arsenic is highly toxic for the human body. Exposure can cause cancer. It is a Category 1 poison, according to the World Health Organization.
The ICAG chairman said the drilling period is very toxic-laden since at the time, there is not yet reinjection of waste back into the earth.
She said Hiromi Hironaka’s finding in 1993 which reports that residents along the Mantigao and Marbel Rivers had elevated levels of arsenic, hydrogen sulfide and manganese traced from hair samples.
These people experienced headache and stomach upset during the construction of Mount Apo Geothermal Power Plant, she said.
Hironaka is a chemist and director for the Asia Arsenic Network.
“All doctors in Irosin are not in favor of the project due to health issues and other bad effects of the geothermal plant,” Gante said.
She dismissed geothermal zero-waste backlog claimed by project proponents, and pointed out that such claim has been refuted by people living close to geothermal plants who are getting sick from toxic emissions.
The ICAG chairman cited skin disease on residents of Barangay Osiao in Bacon district near the BacMan geothermal power plant, saying areas near the Tiwi geothermal plant have signs warning of the hazards of hydrogen-sulfide discharge.
Irosin has a bustling tourism for its hot springs. But geothermal operation may drain local tourism after depleting water in the area, Gante said.
“Our main tourist destinations in Irosin are the hot springs,” she said.
A geothermal plant can also sewer the active tourism in nearby Bulusan, which is retraced by visitors for its choices of cold springs, Gante said.
“It dries out hot springs not only in the Philippines but all over the world,” she said, adding that geothermal operations will also parch ricefields in the area.
Romeo Fortes, legal counsel to ICAG, said Irosin is the rice granary of the province.
The town is the most irrigated rice plane in Sorsogon, said Eliseo Caliwag, National Food Authority provincial manager, in a statement.
“Our economy is mostly agricultural,” Gante said. “What can farmers gain from it? Can they employ our farmers?”
The town proper is only more than a kilometer from the base of Mount Bulusan, Fortes said.
“We are a caldera,” he said. “We sit on the crater of a sunken volcano which had formed Mount Bulusan.”
Fortes said the town is trapped within the triangular coordination of the volcano and two smaller ones in Juban and Bulan.
Gante expressed fear over the possibility of the town’s sinking after a long-drawn geothermal operation has created a huge underground vacuum.
She cited the lecture of Dr. Trevor M. Hunt at a conference in Reyjavik, Iceland, in September 2000, where he pointed out that land subsidence is one of the damaging effects of geothermal operation.
Trevor is a geophysicist at the Wairakei Research Center of the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences in New Zealand.
“The system that we use in the Philippines is mostly liquid-dominated,” Gante said. “What we take is hot water from the ground. When the reservoir is depleted, land subsidence may occur.”
Irosin, the only landlocked town in the province, is also prone to landslide and lava flow, she said.
The project contract was awarded by the DOE to the SKI in 2010 which will bankroll exploration, construction and operation.
In a statement, Josefino Adajar, supervising science research specialist at the DOE, said that under the contract, the SKI will have five years to explore 25,959 hectares covering sections of the towns of Irosin, Bulusan, Juban, Casiguran and Barcelona.
After locating caldera, SKI will take about only 10 hectares to put up a compact geothermal-power plant and operate for a maximum of 50 years.
Adajar said geothermal energy qualifies as renewable if generated by way of natural release, where water is restored by rainfall and heat is constantly produced below earth surface.
Sorsogon has the BacMan geothermal power plant, Gante said.
The government should spare Irosin and tap another power source, she said.
ICAG is umbrella to 47 local organizations of the different sectors in Irosin opposed to geothermal project, said Gante. Nearby towns also rejected it through signature campaigns and other forms of protest.
Fortes, one of the leading figures who stopped the PNOC in the 1990s, said public unrest may erupt if proponents force the geothermal project.
Asked if they will concede their stand to a looming power crisis, Gante in response proposed the harness of wind power along the province’s eastern seaboard.
“Generating power from wind is safe for people and can produce more than what a geothermal power plant can,” she said.