MANILA The Philippine environment minister has asked President Rodrigo Duterte to halt a second review of 28 mines that she ordered closed or suspended, challenging its legality despite initially supporting it.
The U-turn by Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Regina Lopez comes as she faces pressure to defend her decision to shut more than half the country's mines, a move that prompted an industry outcry and concerns about lost revenue.
The government's Mining Industry Coordinating Council (MICC), an inter-agency panel that includes the finance ministry, is conducting a review of the mines following criticism from miners that the original decision was baseless and lacked due process.
"The MICC is not mandated to do a review of any mining operation. The only agency that can do a review of mining operations is DENR, and that's what we've done," Lopez told Reuters, referring to her environment agency.
Duterte's spokesman, Ernesto Abella, declined to comment on Lopez's latest move, saying it was not discussed in a cabinet meeting.
Duterte, who last year warned miners to abide by stricter environmental rules or close down, has so far backed Lopez, a committed environmentalist, in the increasingly contentious dispute.
She faces a Philippine legislative hearing set for Wednesday to confirm her appointment after an initial hearing was postponed last week. She is among just a few of Duterte's appointees yet to get the green light from lawmakers.
Lopez on Feb. 2 ordered the closure of 23 of 41 mines in the world's top nickel ore supplier and suspended five others to protect watersheds after a months-long review last year by the environment agency.
Members of the MICC met a week later and agreed to a second review of the affected mines, issuing a joint resolution signed by Lopez and Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez who co-chair the mining council.
"Whether I signed it or not the fact of the law is the law," Lopez said.
The MICC was created through a 2012 executive order by former President Benigno Aquino and tasked, as part of its duties, to review mining laws and regulations and ensure their implementation.
Lopez said she's challenging the review after learning that the second assessment will cost 50 million pesos ($1 million). "I've already done the review, what more do you want?" she asked.
Dominguez said he was surprised by Lopez's about-face, recalling that it was Lopez's lawyer who drafted the Feb. 9 resolution, ABS-CBN News reported, citing Dominguez.
Miners have contested the closure and suspension orders, which a mining industry group has said would affect 1.2 million people that depend on mining for their livelihood.
For graphic on Philippine mine closures, click: tmsnrt.rs/2kCftpe
(Reporting by Manolo Serapio Jr. and Enrico dela Cruz; Editing by Richard Pullin)