by Michelle Harrison, Earthrights
After nearly a decade of litigation over environmental devastation in the Philippines caused by Placer Dome’s mining operations (now Barrick Gold Corp.), Barrick has reportedly given the Province of Marinduque a take-it-or-leave-it settlement offer that would prohibit the Province from spending a penny to clean up the damage the company left behind.
For decades, Placer Dome operated two mines in the Province of Marinduque, during which time it intentionally dumped hundreds of millions of tons of toxic mine waste into traditional fishing areas, and catastrophic dam failures flooded rivers with toxic mine waste. Notably, Placer Dome’s long time business partner during much of that period was notorious dictator Ferdinand Marcos, until he was overthrown. The company left the island soon after a massive toxic waste spill in 1996 that rendered the Boac River “biologically dead.”
The Province sued Placer Dome in Nevada nearly a decade ago. When Barrick acquired Placer Dome in 2006, it inherited the lawsuit, along with a legacy of harms around the world.
The parties have been engaged in settlement negotiations since 2011 and significant details have surfaced about the terms of Barrick’s offer. The amount on the table is reportedly $20 million USD, which, after litigation costs and attorneys’ fees, is expected to be closer to $13 million- far less than the projected cost of cleanup.
But here’s the worst part: Barrick’s take-it-or-leave-it offer would expressly prohibit the Province from using any of the settlement fund to rehabilitate and remediate the environmental damage caused by the mine’s operations or to stabilize the dangerous mine structures abandoned by the company more than a decade ago. According to two Marinduque lawmakers who have voiced opposition to the terms, the agreement would stipulate “that the settlement proceeds can never be used for the repair and rehabilitation of the damaged ecosystem of the island-province[.]”
The Province would also have to sign a “Statement of Stipulated Facts” which, among other things, states that “the weight of scientific evidence demonstrates that the mine tailings present in the Province’s waterways do not currently pose and have not posed an unacceptable risk to human health” and “do not currently and have not had an unacceptable impact on the environment[.]” Other provisions would state that Placer Dome and Barrick never conducted or transacted business in the Philippines and are not subject to the jurisdiction of the courts.
These “facts” are clearly an attempt to foreclose future lawsuits against the company and a shameless effort to force the Province to adopt a lie so Barrick can re-write history. And the provision prohibiting the Province from using any of the settlement money to clean up the environmental destruction or secure the deteriorating mine structures that continue to pose a risk of repeat disasters would frustrate the entire purpose behind the lawsuit in the first place and perpetuate the harm the company left behind.
Many in Marinduque, including members of the Provincal Board, have expressed outrage over that condition in particular. But Barrick shouldn’t want it, either. Companies that address environmental and human rights claims head on – whether before a lawsuit or by fairly settling a lawsuit – can reap reputational benefits from providing some measure of remedy for harm caused by their operations and from taking some form of responsibility (even while still denying legal liability). Companies that continue to deny their role in any harm, and especially those that actively prohibit victims from obtaining any redress for what they’ve suffered, do not. What community is going to want Barrick to build a mine when they see how Barrick has treated the people of Marinduque?
And, the reality is that Barrick could use some positive PR right now. For a company that boasts a “commit[ment] to making a positive difference in the communities in which we operate[,]” and claims to “conduct itself with the highest ethical standards[,]” Barrick’s actions prove otherwise. The company has recently been accused of using similarly coercive settlement provisions and waivers to avoid legal liability for rapes and murders carried out by its security guards in Tanzania and Papua New Guinea. And the company is currently facing a range of other environmental and human rights scandals around the world.
Those scandals, coupled with the company’s recent financial woes, have made for a bad year for Barrick. Significant change is needed at all levels of the company. But Barrick can, and should, immediately end the use of coercive settlement conditions and allow individuals and communities who have had their entire way of life destroyed by the company’s operations some small chance to heal.