Philippine mining firms urge minister to publish audit

By Enrico Dela Cruz and Manolo Serapio Jr

MANILA (Reuters) - Mining firms in the Philippines struggling to accept the government's decision to shut more than half of the country's 41 mines want the environment minister to release the results of the audit that led to the closures.

The Chamber of Mines of the Philippines, which represents the country's large-scale mining firms, said its members needed all the information related to the audit so they "could act accordingly" and their lawyers would know what to do next.

Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Regina Lopez said she would grant the group's request, but reiterated she was standing by her decision, which differed from the recommendation of a team that reviewed the audit results.

Last week, Lopez ordered the closure of 23 mines, mostly nickel producers, and suspended five others for environmental violations. The Philippines is the world's biggest supplier of nickel ore.

The review team had recommended fines and suspensions but no outright closures, sources told Reuters.

"They (miners) can get whatever they want. No problem at all, just ask for it, go to the office," Lopez told Reuters in a text message, reacting to the group's request.

"Where there was dissonance was in the penalties. They wanted to fine. I don't agree," she said, referring to her decision and the review team recommendations.

The industry group said it would file a freedom of information request early on Wednesday, instead of Tuesday as announced earlier, to find out exactly what violations had led to the closures.

"This is quite a shock to everybody in the industry," the chamber's chairman Artemio Disini told a news conference.

In an interview with Reuters on Monday, Lopez said she would not reconsider her decision, saying the Philippines was "unfit for mining" due to its unique ecosystem.

Lopez launched the environmental audit in July, initially suspending 10 mines and saying 20 more were at risk of being halted. A long-time environmentalist, she took over the department that oversees the mining sector last June when tough-talking President Rodrigo Duterte came to power.

Duterte, who has said the Philippines can survive without a mining industry, has thrown his support behind Lopez's decision. She will present it formally at a cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

Less than a month after he took office, Duterte ordered all agencies directly under his watch to open their records to the public as part of his promise to crack down on corruption and promote transparency in government.

"If she still refuses to release the audit results, then clearly she is going against the Duterte administration's mandate to promote transparency in government," the mining group's spokesman Ronald Recidoro said.

(editing by Richard Pullin and David Clarke)

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