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Class suit on pipeline leak hits a snag

by Ferdinand Fabella
[ ] September 14, 2011

Residents of a Makati City condominium lost first round of their legal battle against the First Philippines Industrial Corporation after a Makati City court ordered a re-raffle of their class suit against the Lopez-controlled company.

Judge Eugene Paras of RTC Branch 58 remanded the case to the Office of the Executive Judge, ruling that the complaint filed by the residents of West Tower condominium is an ordinary damage suit, not an environmental case.

“It cannot be denied that the purpose of the complaint is to recover damages,” said Paras, a certified environmental court judge. “Thus, there is a need for all plaintiffs to file their own separate suits and pay the corresponding docket fees.”

The Lopez-controlled company and co-respondents Pilipinas Shell Petroleum Corp. and Chevron Philippines Inc. have asked the court to determine whether the case is environmental or not since the complainants are merely asking for compensation and not the implementation of environmental laws. Shell and Chevron use the pipeline to bring their petroleum products from Batangas to Metro Manila.

FPIC owns and operates the 117-kilometer underground oil pipeline that leaked in July last year, spilling liters of crude and refined petroleum products beneath the West Tower building. This prompted the city government to order the residents of West Tower to abandon the condominium for health reasons.

After the pipeline leaked, West Tower residents filed charges of violations of Republic Act 6969 (Toxic Substances and Hazardous and Nuclear Wastes Control Act), Republic Act 8749 (Philippine Clean Air Act of 1999) and Republic Act 9275 (the Philippine Clean Water Act).

They also asked for compensation of P1 billion in actual, moral, and exemplary damages as a result of their being displaced by the massive oil leak in Barangay Bangkal July last year.

The respondents countered that the case is not an environmental case and that the complainants should pay filing fees.

The Rules of Procedures for Environmental Cases cover only the enforcement or violations of environmental laws and the complainants have previously filed a petition for Writ of Kalikasan which already raised violations and sought the enforcement of environmental laws, FPIC said.

But Paras said the complainants did not seek the enforcement of RAs 6969, 8749 and 9275 or their environmental rights but instead asked for damages.

Under the subject Rules, environmental cases are not subject to the payment of filing and docket fees.

Since this is an ordinary action for damages, the complaint should have been filed before the Pollution Adjudication Board of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, according to the Makati court.

“Records show that PAB had already investigated the oil spill complained of and it even found FPIC liable for polluting the groundwater beneath the (West Tower) condominium and Barangay Bangkal, Makati City. It will be an exercise of futility if the complaint has to be referred to the PAB,” Paras said.

He ordered the West Tower Condominium Corp. to pay the appropriate filing fees within ten days from the receipt of the court order.

The Lopez-controlled company welcomed the ruling even as it reiterated its offer to settle with the complainants. “We are happy that the Court ruled in our favour. This means we are now guided with proper court proceedings on the case,” FPIC said in a statement.

“We, nonetheless, remain open to the possibility of arriving at an amicable settlement with the West Tower residents who filed the case. In the meantime, our focus still remains on the remediation of affected areas in Bangkal and the rehabilitation of West Tower,” FPIC said.

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