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The politics in garbage
Rimaliza Opiña

LOW COMPLIANCE RATE -- Fifteen years after the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act took effect, many local government units have not fully complied with the several methods in solid waste management, such as mandatory segregation at source, establishment of materials of recovery facilities, and decommissioning of open dumpsites. Here, segregated wastes from Baguio and La Trinidad are being prepared for hauling to a sanitary landfill in the lowlands. -- HFP

Early this year, the Environmental Ombudsman filed charges against more than 60 local government units and around 600 local chief executives who failed to implement provisions of Republic Act 9003, or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2003.

Failure to come up with a solid waste management plan in their respective localities and the continued use of open dumpsites were the reasons cited by the National Solid Waste Commission (NSWC) in filing the complaint.

At the Senate, Sen. Loren Legarda said she is hoping for a stricter implementation of RA 9003 with the national government’s appropriation of P500 million in the Environmental Management Bureau’s budget, which shall be used as capacity building assistance to LGUs.

Citing a 2012 data from the National Economic Development Authority, Legarda said only 36 percent or 545 out of the 1,610 LGUs nationwide have complied with the national solid waste management framework. She said contrary to what the law prescribes, compliance is far from what was envisioned – that all open dumpsites should be converted into controlled disposal sites three years after the law takes effect. Controlled dumpsites, on the other hand, shall be allowed to operate five years after the law takes effect. Thereafter, the controlled dumpsites have to be rehabilitated and closed and concerned LGUs shall use a final disposal facility that is compliant with the guidelines of the law.

DENR’s monitoring of compliance of LGUs started in 2009. At the time, over a thousand notices of violation have been issued by the agency. Yet, it was only recently that charges were filed by the Environmental Ombudsman. 

Legarda said it has been 15 years since the law’s passage, yet the compliance rate remains low. She said the approach on how LGUs are made to comply with the law are so far dismal.

The Baguio, La Trinidad, and Bontoc experience

The Cordillera’s de facto regional center Baguio City, Benguet’s most progressive town of La Trinidad, and Bontoc, town center of Mountain Province, share a common story – they are the most progressive LGUs in the region, and are also confronted with problems on how to manage their wastes. 

Of the three, La Trinidad was the first to shut down its open dumpsite in Barangay Buyagan in 2011. In compliance with RA 9003, the LGU, as early as 2003, started investing in the development of a sanitary landfill located in Barangay Alno.  The 9.80 hectare landfill is designed to contain four “cells” or areas wherein when the first site is no longer in use, other areas could be developed into another landfill and accommodate other waste management facilities or equipment.

The lifespan of the landfill was two to three years, but even before the LGU could develop the rest of the area, it encountered problems with how the area was being used.

Based on the draft 10-year solid waste management plan of La Trinidad, the Alno landfill was operated like an open dumpsite and its usage exceeded the expected lifespan, which was supposed to be 2.3 years only. In 2014, a team from the municipal government said the dumpsite had to be “unloaded” because cracks began to show in the retaining wall, including an area used as drainage canal and for the leachate collection system. The team said if dumping continues, the nearby community could be in danger.

For safety reasons, the Alno landfill has been closed, although a portion categorized as “Cell II” is still used to accommodate biodegradable wastes from the La Trinidad Vegetable Trading Post. The LGU also began developing “Cell III” but was momentarily halted in 2013 due to the election ban during the midterm elections.

“Cell IV” remains a forested site within the area.

In the case of Bontoc, a consent decree, stemming from the filing of a petition by the Kalinga Anti-Pollution Action Group (Kapag) for the issuance of a Writ of Kalikasan necessitated the immediate decommissioning or closure of the Toytoyokan Lagangew open dumpsite in Barangay Caluttit.

A consent decree is a form of compromise agreement between parties in environmental cases.

According to the Kapag, the continuous operation of the dumpsite polluted the Chico River, which is a source of irrigation for farms in Tinglayan and Pasil, Kalinga.

The dumpsite is now being converted into an eco-park.

A judicial and perhaps, divine intervention, also “forced” the LGU of Baguio to shut down its Irisan open dumpsite.

In August 2011, at the height of a strong typhoon, tons of garbage cascaded to Asin Road, Tuba, Benguet. This resulted in the death of six individuals. Eight houses were also buried. The volume of water and the alleged absence of a drainage system where runoff water would flow, were said to be the reason why the mountain of garbage flowed to the village below. At the time, the dumpsite has technically been closed and was only operating as a controlled dump facility with initial rehabilitation works being undertaken such as the strengthening of the retaining wall, compacting the garbage heap, and installation of pipes as exhaust system for methane gas.

The incident also resulted in the filing of a Writ of Kalikasan against the city government of Baguio. The Court of Appeals eventually issued a temporary protection order and a writ of continuing mandamus, which directed the city to decommission the dumpsite, within six months.

Avoidable occurrences

Environmental Management Bureau OIC Director for the Cordillera Reynaldo Digamo said none among the three LGUs can claim that there were no warning signs prior to these incidents. For Baguio City and Bontoc, residents of Tuba and Tabuk City have long been complaining about the pollution.

In 2008, then mayor Reinaldo Bautista Jr. ordered the closure of the dumpsite but because of lack of coordination with the concerned department and without an alternative disposal site, the city continued to dump in Irisan. This resulted in the barricading by residents of Nangalisan, Tuba and Irisan of the dumpsite claiming that city officials reneged in their declaration.

The City Legal Office filed a case of grave coercion, which the Office of the City Prosecutor granted saying the protesters should not take the law into their hands.

Digamo said pollution could have been averted, litigation expenses could have been saved, and lives could have been spared if those concerned began taking action immediately after the law was passed.

“The law is clear, the main implementer are LGUs. The DENR’s role is only to render technical assistance,” Digamo said in res-ponse to clamor from LGU officials that they are having a hard time following to the letter, RA 9003.

The law also imposes severe penalties especially to LGUs, represented by their mayors or governors who fail to comply. Operation of open dumpsites is punishable with a minimum fine of P500,000 plus administrative charge in accordance with the Local Government Code.

But other than issuance of notices, Digamo said the DENR has, in fact, been liberal in its imposition of penalties, considering the circumstances that prevent LGUs from fully complying with the law, such as budgetary constraints, absence of a suitable site for landfill, difficulty in obtaining social acceptability, government procurement procedures, preparation and review of their 10-year solid waste management plans, and dealing with an undisciplined citizenry.

However, Digamo said there were measures that could have been implemented if every LGU considered solid waste management a priority project.

“If solid waste management is not a priority, it will never succeed,” Digamo said, reminding that while the EMB-DENR appears to be the sole agency in charge of ensuring that LGUs comply with the law, RA 9003 actually includes and defines the role of many government agencies to help the goal of an ecological form of waste disposal.

One crucial agency, he said, is the Department of the Interior and Local Government – the agency vested with authority to oversee the operation of LGUs.

“The DENR does not have the authority to sanction any LGU,” Digamo said but admits that implementation of sanctions is not easy. 

“Agencies represent the executive department but on the ground, its regional officials have to maintain cordial relationship with incumbent elected local officials.”

Another problem is the lack or absence of authority to decide of representatives that local chief executives assign to attend meetings on matters involving waste management. He said representatives are mere sounding boards, which in the long run prolongs the decision-making process because of the many channels that one or several policies have to go through before a final decision is reached.

Digamo said policy differences between the executive department and their sanggunian also contribute to delays in the realization of solid waste plans. The period of review of solid waste plans by the NSWC is also a cause of delay.

Issues on the ground

For local chief executives, RA 9003 contains the most ideal methods with how to manage solid waste. So perfect, that it has become difficult for them to follow every provision.

Aside from decommissioning of open dumpsites, RA 9003 also mandates establishment of materials recovery facilities, use of technology as final mode of disposal (not necessarily a sanitary landfill), and segregation at source.

La Trinidad Mayor Edna Tabanda, Ifugao Gov. Denis Habawel, and Tinglayan, Kalinga Mayor Johnny Maymaya share the same view that the methods prescribed in RA 9003 would entail costs – not meager costs but an expenditure that no doubt, would result in a dent in their respective budgets.

Maymaya said DENR’s assistance should not be limited to the technical aspect only. Being dependent on internal revenue allotments, he said fourth to sixth class municipalities also have to deal with a smaller budget that they divide among equally important projects in their towns.

Of the LGUs in the Cordillera, Baguio City is the biggest spender. Without a final disposal site yet, Baguio hauls its garbage to the lowlands. Bulk of its annual budget is in fact, devoted for hauling and tipping fees. Another major expenditure was when it purchased a machine called the environmental recycling system, which turns biodegradable waste into compost.

Through a loan, the local government of La Trinidad also bought a machine that is supposed to turn waste into ash. But only a few months, the machine, called the “blackhole” is not being used by the LGU anymore, and the LGU is currently facing a civil case for failing to pay its loans from the Cooperative Bank of Benguet.

Currently, a private sanitary landfill in Tarlac is where La Trinidad, Baguio City, and even Tuba bring their wastes; Bontoc has contracted a company that provided machines that would crush plastic, glass, and rocks; while Ifugao is using a plastic shredder for non-biodegradable waste, albeit the Lagawe and Banaue dumpsites are still being used.

Progress report

Despite difficulties, the EMB’s monitoring report showed LGUs are employing different methods in managing their wastes.

In the EMB’s inventory of solid waste facilities, Mountain Province was able to build the most number of MRF with 63, followed by Benguet with 47; Apayao – 27; and Abra – 12. No record was shown for Ifugao, while there are nine and six in Baguio and Kalinga.

The report also showed that out of 22 open dumpsites in Abra, seven have been closed and the 15 are already undergoing closure. In Apayao’s nine open dumpsites, two have been closed and seven are ongoing closure. For Benguet, six have been closed, two are ongoing closure, and three are used as controlled dump facilities. Mankayan, however, continues to operate an open dumpsite. Baguio City has already closed the Irisan dumpsite. In Ifugao, the open dumpsite at the Banaue Viewpoint is ongoing closure, although the open dumpsite in Lagawe is still operating. 

Plans of action

Despite issues raised with how the law is being implemented, the EMB and the local chief executives agree that RA 9003 should not be amended.

“The law is already there. All we ask is we be given more time,” Habawel said.

Digamo said the EMB was never remiss in assisting LGUs. Aware that review of solid waste plans takes time, he said the regional office has invited members of the NSWC to review the solid waste plans of “problematic” LGUs in CAR. The review will be done in one day and in case the solid waste plan needs to be revised, the Commission grants a conditional approval subject to their final approval.

Digamo said this allows the LGUs to start with the approved portions of their solid waste plans.

The EMB also recently launched the “basura patrol,” a monitoring mechanism where the agency will hire employees on job order basis to take pictures or videos of garbage strewn in parks, rivers, estuaries or other public areas. The pictures will be geotagged and referred to the governor, mayor, or punong barangay as a form of reminder to clean the area.

Who should be ‘the one’

Environmental preservation and conservation is clearly a pressing issue especially at the local front. Asked how they would assess the candidates’ platform, Engr. Alex Luis, head of the EMB Pollution Control Division, said he has yet to hear a clear program on waste management.

Citing one candidate who said he has a “secret” formula in solving garbage disposal problems, Luis said any program that would benefit the majority is meant to be shared, not kept. 

He said waste management solutions does not take rocket scie nce, only the conviction and the heart in seeing to it that even after their terms, generations would benefit. He and Digamo said elect candidates who:

•Knows RA 9003 by heart. Aware that offers of “alternative waste disposal technologies” are sometimes overwhelming, Digamo said concerned officials should know that in RA 9003, one of the responsibilities of the Department of Science Technology is to develop technology that would help address waste disposal. While LGUs are not under any obligation to avail themselves of the technologies developed by the agency, he said it won’t hurt to consult the DOST of the most feasible technology in their jurisdiction;

•Someone who does not give in to patronage politics. They need not be graduates of Sanitary Engineering but someone, who, when elected, will appoint people knowledgeable about solid waste management, not who will appoint someone who come into position just because they contributed in the campaign;

•Someone who uses resources wisely. With the many priorities LGUs have to spend on, vote for those who know that the environment is and should be a priority; and 

•Is on top of the situation.

Luis said if an executive is resolved in improving the present waste disposal system, basic policies such as mandatory segregation at source has to be implemented at all costs. With the difficulty in disciplining the community, an executive has to put his foot down and show the people that waste management is not a responsibility of government alone, but of the entire citizenry.
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