Olongapo SubicBay BatangGapo Newscenter

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Check tree poisoning in Subic

DENR CHIEF ORDERS: ‘Check tree poisoning in Korean project’

The Environment Management Bureau has obtained soil samples from a two-hectare tract of land leased to a Korean casino and hotel project at the Subic Bay Freeport to verify reports about the alleged poisoning of more than 300 trees there, Environment Secretary Lito Atienza said on Saturday.

"We found no trees being cut, and as far as allegations that the soil has been poisoned, we instructed our people in the field, the EMB director himself, to test the soil samples we got," Atienza told the Inquirer on the sidelines of the 2009 Asian Waterbird Census here.

Alerts about the poisoning reached the Inquirer through several text messages, some from unregistered senders.

Hefty amounts of salt, the senders said, have been poured on the ground where the trees stood.

Without saying how many samples were taken last week, Atienza said the results of the test would be known shortly.

"We'll find out. If there is poisoning, somebody has to answer for that," he said. The EMB is a bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Reports of tree poisoning surfaced in December after Armand Arreza, administrator of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority, bared the findings of a private environmental consulting firm hired by the Korean company Grand Utopia Inc. that some trees were sick and needed to be cut.

The proposed action contrasted the two early positions of Arreza, according to architect Felino Palafox Jr., who backed out of the project and gave up a $1-million contract when he learned that Grand Utopia planned to cut the trees.

Arreza first issued a no-cutting policy then revised that by allowing the balling and transfer of the trees, Palafox said.

The interventions by Atienza two weeks ago -- his scrapping of the DENR 2006 memorandum of agreement authorizing the SBMA to issue environmental compliance certificates for projects at the free port and his no-tree-cutting policy at the project site -- bolstered Palafox's drive to save the trees.

Atienza has not changed course, saying on Saturday: "Our direction is clear. No tree will be cut in our support for investments there. The mature trees, in particular, must be incorporated in the design and will enhance the design."

In an inspection last week, Atienza said he stressed to SBMA officials that the "developer and investors must see to it that the trees are protected in their efforts to provide a wholesome recreation area."

Grand Utopia, he said, "will have to follow."

"Its commitment is to follow the rule. We welcome and support investments but they must follow our laws and our rules. That is clear to them," he said.

At the Subic Bay Freeport, Arreza denied that the SBMA had fabricated information on Atienza's pronouncements on tree-cutting in the casino-hotel project during his site visit last week.

Atienza reportedly said Palafox should "stick to the truth" regarding the trees, after noting that no trees had been cut.

The secretary also reportedly said that newspaper reports turned out to be "inaccurate and exaggerated." However, he denied making those statements.

A source in the SBMA, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to talk about the issue, said Atienza's statements were on video.

"We also sent his department copies of the interview so they know that he really said that," the SBMA source said.

Palafox said Atienza's supposed statements were part of a "black propaganda campaign" to discredit him.

Arreza denied being part of the campaign against Palafox. "We don't have the capacity to do that," he said. By Tonette Orejas - Inquirer Central Luzon Desk

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