By Enrico Dela Cruz and Manolo Serapio Jr
MANILA (Reuters) - The planned closure of 23 Philippine mines, mostly nickel producers, and the suspension of five others will affect about 1.2 million people, miners said, as some vowed to take legal action to contest the decision.
Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Regina Lopez ordered the closures and suspensions on Thursday as she announced the results of a months-long audit on the country's 41 mines aimed at halting mining operations judged to have harmed the environment.
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Artemio Disini, chairman of the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines, told a briefing that the first option for affected miners would be to appeal to President Rodrigo Duterte "before going to the courts".
"We have a total 1.2 million people affected including family members," Disini said.
Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez said on Friday he would meet shortly with other cabinet members to check if they have "emergency employment programs" that could absorb workers who will lose jobs.
"My next concern is the impact on local government finances because (miners) pay a lot of taxes to local governments," Dominguez told reporters.
Enrique Fernandez, president of suspended nickel miner Eramen Minerals Inc, which has now been ordered to close, said staff levels had already fallen to 150 from more than 1,000 previously and more workers could go by the end of the month.
"The problem is the relationship between the government and the industry. The government is more of a regulator rather than a partner in development," Fernandez told Reutres.
Still largely unexplored, the Philippines is the world's top nickel ore supplier, but the mining sector contributes less than 1 percent to the overall economy.
Only 3 percent of 9 million hectares (22 million acres)identified by the state as having high mineral reserves is currently being mined, according to government data.
Ronald Recidoro from the Chamber of Mines said on Thursday that affected miners would "definitely" seek legal action if President Rodrigo Duterte denied their appeal to overturn Lopez's orders.
Duterte, who last year said the Philippines could survive without a mining industry, on Thursday threw his support behind Lopez's latest action.
Lopez "took it upon herself to be the judge and the executioner of the mining industry," said Vicente Lao who owns chromite producer Mt. Sinai Mining Exploration and Development Corp, which has also been ordered to close.
Most of the miners say they have yet to receive any official instruction from Lopez's agency.
"Accordingly, our mining operations continue," gold miner Lepanto Consolidated Mining Co, which was ordered suspended, told the stock exchange. Lepanto said it "has not violated any environmental laws."
BenguetCorp Nickel Mines Inc, a unit of Benguet Corp, said it would use "various legal options available to it to nullify the baseless closure order upon its receipt."
The Philippine Stock Exchange halted trading for one hour on Friday on shares of five miners which were either ordered shut or suspended, or their subsidiaries, including major nickel ore producers Nickel Asia Corp and Marcventures Holdings Inc.
(Reporting by Enrico dela Cruz and Manolo Serapio Jr.; Editing by Richard Pullin)