PALAWAN, Philippines – Jeminda Bartolome spends her days at the foot of a lush mountain range tending to her rice paddies. A mother of six, she leads a group of farmers and members of the Indigenous Palawan tribe who believe the crop is endowed with a human soul.
“That,” she said on a recent afternoon pointing toward her farmland, “is our source of livelihood.”
Bartolome, 56, lives in one of the most biodiverse places on earth, a stunning island that draws legions of tourists to its crystal blue waters and pristine nature reserves. But these days, her livelihood, and the ancient rainforest system it depends on, are increasingly under threat.
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A nickel mine stretching nearly 4 square miles scars the forest above Bartolome’s farmland. The mine, Rio Tuba, plays a vital role in satisfying the global demand for a mineral more coveted than ever due in part to the explosion of the electric car industry.
The raw nickel dug out of the ground here ends up in the lithium batteries of plug-in vehicles manufactured by Tesla, Toyota and other automakers, according to an NBC News review of company filings and shipping records.
With the demand for nickel skyrocketing, the Rio Tuba mine is now on the brink of expanding deeper into the rainforest, adding almost 10 square miles to its current footprint. Local environmentalists fear that it will wipe out the forest’s fragile ecosystem and increase toxic runoff into the rivers that flow past the farmland down below, jeopardizing the crops.
“What is at stake there is the life and survival of the people in the communities,” said Grizelda Mayo-Anda, an environmental lawyer and professor in Palawan.
Electric cars are hailed as a climate-friendly alternative to the gas-guzzling vehicles that have long ruled America’s roads. Experts agree that they create a lower carbon footprint than traditional cars.
But the controversy over the planned mine expansion highlights an often overlooked reality: manufacturing electric cars, even when done responsibly, still takes a toll on the environment.
With the demand for nickel expected to grow to at least 10 times what it is now by 2030, experts say companies will have no choice but to expand their mining operations, impacting more people like Bartolome and more places like the island paradise of Palawan.
Digging up the earth
Located between the South China and the Sulu seas, Palawan is known as the last frontier of the Philippines.
The 270-mile-long island is part of the Man and Biosphere Reserve program of UNESCO and serves as the home of 105 threatened species of flora and fauna.
On the southern tip of the island, surrounded by dense tropical rainforest, sits the dusty mining town of Bataraza.
Trucks crisscross the area carrying nickel ore from the mine site to a nearby processing center and then onto the port at Rio Tuba Bay, where it leaves Palawan’s shores on a long journey that ends in electric cars lined up on showroom floors in the United States, Europe and Asia.
NBC News reviewed corporate reports from the Japanese mining giant Sumitomo Metal Mining to track the processed nickel through refineries in Japan, where it is converted into nickel cobalt aluminum oxide cathode material for Panasonic’s lithium ion batteries.
Sumitomo Metal Mining holds a roughly 25 percent stake in the company that owns the Rio Tuba mine – Nickel Asia, which is based in the Philippines.
The mine has an outsize presence in Bataraza. One of its main high schools, supermarkets and municipal buildings all carry the name Rio Tuba, a testament company officials say to the development the mine brought to the area.
“The town of Bataraza before mining started was a fourth-class municipality, which in the Philippine classifications is the poorest of the poor,” Jose Baylon, a spokesman for Nickel Asia, said.
The town is now considered a first-class municipality, he said, a designation that puts it just below a city. Among the town’s major upgrades: a water system that Nickel Asia paid for at the request of government officials.
“It is made possible because of the income generated by the mining,” Baylon said.
The mine began operations in the mid-1970s after the Rio Tuba Nickel Mining Corp. secured the permission of the Philippines government. At the time, the nickel ore pulled out of the earth was mainly used in the production of stainless steel.
The operation took on new prominence after the turn of the century with the rise of electric cars. Nickel is a key component in the lithium batteries that power the vehicles, and there’s only one way to get it: digging up the earth.
“Nickel is our biggest concern for scaling lithium-ion cell production,” Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk tweeted earlier this year.
Advances in clean energy coincided with new technology that allowed companies like Nickel Asia to extract nickel from a different type of ore. A process called high pressure acid leaching made it possible to extract nickel from low-grade laterite ore.
But the technique comes at a price: because the materials lie at the surface, as opposed to deep underground, miners must clear out a wider swath of land.
“You are fundamentally having to move more ore out of the ground, and obviously that has a bigger footprint from a mining perspective,” said Andrew Miller, chief operating officer at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, which tracks the supply chain for electric vehicles.
Over time, the Rio Tuba mine swallowed up more of the rainforest.
Alarmed by the potential consequences, environmental and Indigenous rights groups marshaled their resources.
In 2010, the Indigenous peoples advocacy group Ancestral Land/Domain Watch and the Centre for Biocultural Diversity of the University of Kent in the United Kingdom released a sharply-worded report calling for an end to mining operations in the area.
“The continuation of mining activities in Bulanjao will irremediably damage the best conserved forest in the southern tip of Palawan, with predictable adverse consequences for the food production capacity of both indigenous and migrant farmers communities living at the foot of this mountain range,” the report said.
“Because of mining activities taking place at high elevations, the risk of landslides is likely to increase to an unprecedented level. Also, the eco-tourism potential of this mountain forest is likely to be jeopardized.”
Two years later, the nonprofit environmental group Friends of the Earth Japan announced that it completed an environmental field study in Palawan that it said found unsafe levels of hexavalent chromium, a cancer-causing chemical that was at the center of the Julia Roberts film “Erin Brockovich,” in one of the rivers near the mine.
In an interview, Hozue Hatae, a researcher at Friends of the Earth Japan, said the group launched the tests after conducting a 2009 survey with 133 households that found 85 percent reported experiencing an uptick in coughs and other respiratory issues, as well as skin lesions.
The group conducted annual tests on the Togpon River from 2009 to 2019, which found that in the rainy season, it exceeded the hexavalent chromium exposure levels used by the World Health Organization in determining the safety of drinking water.
Last month, the reporting partner for this story, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, conducted water tests along the Togpon River and the Kinurong Creek. Four of the seven samples taken at different points along the waterways showed levels of hexavalent chromium higher than the WHO standard for drinking water.
Multiple people who live near the area said in interviews last month that locals stopped using the river and the creek for drinking water years ago after the water developed a reddish hue.
Nickel mines have been found to increase the release of soluble chromate into groundwater and surface water, experts say. The risk grows when proper containment measures are not in place. But it’s difficult to establish a definitive link between a mine and high chromate levels without water test results that predated the operations.
Two experts – Jennifer De France, team leader of drinking water quality at the WHO, and Murray McBride, a professor of soil science at Cornell University – said it was possible that the level of chromate in the water was a natural occurrence that resulted from high concentrations in underlying rocks.
Whatever the cause, McBride said, it could be detrimental to the rice paddies in the area.
“There is potential for crop damage from chromate accumulated in soil, as well as possible risk to human health if chromate levels in soils are too high,” he said.
Baylon, the Nickel Asia spokesman, pushed back at the idea that the mine was contaminating the water. He said Rio Tuba’s initial sampling in December 1996 showed “escalated values of hexavalent chromium in nickel mining water before the peak of the mining operation.”
He said Rio Tuba conducted a 2018-2019 study with the National Institute of Geological Sciences at the University of the Philippines, Diliman, that showed hexavalent chromium in surface waters exiting the mine were at low levels while the metal in groundwater was generally undetected.
“The mine drainage system is designed to direct the mine surface runoff straight to the Rio Tuba River and not for drinking, irrigation or agricultural purposes,” Baylon said. “Therefore, it is very unlikely that mine waters, or Cr6+ (hexavalent chromium) will enter the local water supplies.”
He acknowledged that mining operations invariably impact the environment, but he noted that throughout history technological advances have come at a cost.
“I think human development has been a series of trade-offs over the years,” he added. “Part of what we’re suffering through today is paying off the coal factories, which made the industrial revolution possible.”
Baylon emphasized that his company takes a series of steps to mitigate the mine’s impact on the land, including a sophisticated process of planting trees over the mined area. He noted that Rio Tuba has received multiple honors, including the best practice in minerals mining award in the first Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ Mineral Awards in 2017.
“We cannot castigate a whole industry because there are some irresponsible operators,” he says. “Life has been a series of trade-offs, and we're still trading off. But I think the trading off now is getting much better than it was.”
Representatives from Tesla and Toyota did not respond to requests for comment. A Panasonic spokesperson declined to comment.
‘We have nowhere to go’
The family of Kennedy Corio, a farmer and father of seven, is among the roughly 300 households living in the foothills of Mount Bulanjao. He said he now feels stuck in a place where his livelihood and his culture are slowly slipping away.
“We have nowhere to go now,” he said. “Our livelihood — it’s all there.”
For Corio and his fellow Palawan, the worries go beyond how the mining operation will impact his family’s access to clean water and food.
“We won’t have something to pass to the next generation if it all gets destroyed,” he said.
The expansion of the Rio Tuba mine has been years in the making.
The Rio Tuba Nickel Mining Corp. had previously received permission to mine a 990-hectare site [3.8 square miles]. But the ore reserves in that area will soon be depleted, company officials say.
Over the past nearly 20 years, the company has worked to overcome bureaucratic hurdles for the right to mine a much larger swath on the western side of Mount Bulanjao. Much of the area had originally been designated as “core zones,” or areas of maximum protection by Palawan law. But the layers of protection were gradually stripped away by local officials who changed land use and environment zoning maps to accommodate mining.
“It's very alarming that zones are being changed or revised without solid science to back it up and also without community consultations,” said Mayo-Anda, the environmental lawyer who also serves as executive director of the nonprofit Environmental Legal Assistance Center.
In 2019, Rio Tuba scored a major victory when the Philippines Mines and Geosciences Bureau approved its application to renew and amend its agreement with the government over the scope of its mining operations. The company secured the right to mine an additional 3,548 hectares of forest [13 square miles], which would more than quadruple the size of its present footprint.
Officials with the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development, a government agency that oversees the island’s strategic environmental plan and gets the last word on requests to develop forest areas, said it has cleared Rio Tuba to mine a smaller area: an additional 2,500 hectares [9.6 square miles], which would still more than triple its current footprint.
Many tribal leaders in Bataraza support the expansion. They say the mine has benefited local people — both adults and children — in the form of jobs and academic scholarships.
“We benefit a lot from that company,” Angelo Lagrada, a local chieftain, said in a July 2019 interview with the local news site Palawan News.
But the Environmental Legal Assistance Center has filed a petition challenging the decision to change the status of the area targeted by Rio Tuba to make it possible to mine there. The case remains ongoing, but Mayo-Anda acknowledged that it’s unlikely to stall the project.
Rio Tuba is preparing to start mining the new section of Mount Bulanjao next year. It is also seeking the green light to dig up nickel ore on a 667-hectare site [2.5 square miles] on the western side of the mountain near the town of Rizal.
But Rio Tuba is facing a significant obstacle: tribal leaders in Rizal oppose the expansion. Under the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act of 1997, mining companies are required to seek the consent of the Indigenous residents living in the lands where they plan to set up operations.
Narlito Silnay, a tribal leader in Rizal, lamented how the project has driven a wedge between the Indigenous people dwelling in the area.
“We ourselves are fighting each other,” Silnay said. “Before we didn't go through this. It’s sad. It’s as if we don’t understand each other.”
Electric cars help the environment … at a cost
The number of electric vehicles on the world’s roads hit a record high last year fueled by soaring Tesla sales. In recent months, General Motors and Volvo have announced that they intend to stop selling gasoline-powered vehicles within the next 20 years or so.
S&P Global and other industry analysts expect automakers to lean more on nickel for the surging electric vehicle battery market, moving away from cobalt due to its high cost and issues like the use of child labor in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“The bigger question about nickel is how do you get the refined battery grade material nickel out of the ground and to your battery market,” said Miller, of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, who expects the sector to grow by a factor of 10 to 15 by 2030.
The situation in Palawan raises a vexing question, experts say: To what extent is reducing carbon emissions through battery technology worth the damage it inflicts on the environment?
“I think it’s a really difficult ethical dilemma,” said Gillian Galford, a professor in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont. “On one hand, we have a very promising technology that can help us address our fossil fuel dependence. But on the other hand, we have lots of environmental harms that can go into getting us to that point.”
She said the battle in Palawan reinforces the need for multiple approaches to tackling the world’s climate crisis.
“There's no one technology that's going to solve our climate crisis,” Galford added. “We have to deploy as many options as we feasibly can, and part of that may be electric vehicle development and increased dependence on that type of vehicle. But it's also going to be conserving our forests so that our forests are taking up carbon and storing carbon and doing all the hard work they have done for us already, to help us reduce the impacts of climate change.”
Bartolome, the rice farmer and mother of six, said she feels invisible in the debate. Standing in the shadow of Mount Bulanjao, she said she doesn’t understand why companies that make products used by wealthy people thousands of miles away must source materials from her backyard.
“They can buy more fuel there. They can find a way,” she said. “What are we going to do if our livelihood is destroyed? If our mountain is flattened?”