THE Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) has suspended the controversial P4.2-billion Coron-Culion Inter-Island Bridges project, as it seeks to secure the necessary permits and environmental clearance required by several laws.

In a roundtable discussion hosted by the environmental group Oceana Philippines on Thursday, DPWH Officer-in-Charge for Region 4B [Mimaropa] Yolanda Tangco admitted she had no idea how the project was conceived, only that the project was included in the General Appropriations Act of 2019. “Sorry, I really don’t know who really is the [project] proponent,” adding that she was only transferred to the region in the latter part of 2019.

She added, “The funds were released in 2020. We have also the consultancy for the FS [feasibility study] — the funds were released at the same time. On the part of the DPWH, because we had a release of P250 million and based on the ruling  of the DBM [Department of Budget and Management] and targets of the DPWH, we had to obligate the amount. We were forced to bid this out, so if we obligate this, we still had two years to implement the project,” she said in Taglish.

While construction had already started for the 21-kilometer bridge’s access road, a work-suspension order was issued by Tangco to contractor JH Pahara Construction Corp. after environmentalists launched a petition to stop the project. Effective April 8, construction on the access road was to be stopped “until all the required clearances from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources [DENR], Environment Management Bureau, Palawan Council for Sustainable Development, and other requirements have been complied/approved,” as per Tangco’s work-suspension order dated April 7, 2021.

Feasibility study forthcoming

The official apologized for the furor caused by the bridge project. “DPWH did not have the intention not to follow all regulations. We apologize for that; we didn’t realize that we would not be able to comply with the FS because of the ongoing pandemic,” she said. The FS is scheduled to be completed by July, “and only then can we determine if the project is indeed feasible,” she added.

Tangco explained that the bridge project is “part of the LIP [Local Infrastructure Projects]” under the DPWH’s budget in 2019. As per DBM sources, LIPs are usually proposed by legislators, and is a basically a set of funds which legislators divvy up among themselves for use in their pet projects.

She added, “mitigating measures” will be adopted if some critical areas were already impacted by the initial construction work. If the project is no longer deemed feasible, Tangco said “no more additional releases will be made. We will remove the project. We will revert the funding and terminate the contract.”

For her part, DPWH’s consultant for the feasibility study, Architect Cathy Saldaña of PDP Architects, assured the roundtable participants,  “We are focusing on sustainability and environment.” With advanced technologies and the use of the correct materials, she said the project “will conform with non-toxicity as well as provide a future habitat now for the marine life.”

She added, “We are also cognizant of the fact that when you design footings for a bridge, you can find a way to avoid those areas that are really sensitive,”  underscoring that many bridges around the world have been able to keep intact the  marine resources and economic benefits these provide. She said, part of her firm’s work as FS consultant is to consult with the stakeholders regarding the project.

Permits from DENR needed

DENR Regional Director Ma. Lourdes Ferrer told the forum that even before the media picked up the issue, “We already had initial plans to discuss this with the DPWH because there still was no feasibility study. And after the FS, there should be a detailed design. We want an ECC [environment clearance certificate]. They have to get these permits from us but [we noticed] roads were already being constructed, which will have pass through a mountain.”

Aside from the FS, she said, the DENR requires an environment impact assessment study…this is a huge project. “While Coron-Culion is not a protected area, we were instructed by the Secretary [Roy A. Cimatu] that there must be consultations [with stakeholders]; so the concerns on biodiversity, the heritage value in the area, chances are these will come into that. In the EIA, if we see there are sensitive areas that will be hit by this project, we will have to tell them they can’t push through with those aspects.  We will look for remediation measures.”

She also underscored,“All government projects pass through ECC [process].”