By Manolo Serapio Jr and Enrico Dela Cruz
MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine environment minister Regina Lopez said on Thursday her order to shut mines operating in watersheds is non-negotiable and has the backing of President Rodrigo Duterte, who has the final say on the fate of the affected mines.
Lopez said her decision to shut 23 of the country's 41 mines and suspend five others was above-board, in response to claims made by a mining industry group that she side-stepped the proper processes.
"It's totally in my right to close down the mines," Lopez told a media briefing to address controversy over her decision.
The mines to be closed account for half of nickel ore output by the world's top supplier of the metal. Fifteen of the 23 mines are within watershed areas.
However, sources told Reuters that a team that reviewed an audit of the country's mines recommended suspension of operations and payment of fines for environmental violations, rather than closures.
"It would take a miracle to convince me to allow mining in watersheds. As far as I know it's against the law. It's against social justice, it's against the constitution. He (Duterte) said I agree there should be no mining in watersheds," said Lopez, a staunch environmentalist.
Lopez said the miners can appeal her decision to the office of the president. If the president upholds the closure, they can go to court but they would have to halt their operations while the matter is decided.
Mines ordered for closure include those run by Hinatuan Mining Corp, a unit of top Philippine nickel ore producer Nickel Asia Corp, and BenguetCorp Nickel Mines Inc.
The Chamber of Mines of the Philippines is pressing the environment agency to release the audit that led to the closures.
"We are not just requesting for the mere summation of the audit results. We need the actual test results which were used as bases for determining whether or not these mining firms have violated environmental regulations," Artemio Disini, the chamber's chairman, said in a statement on Thursday.
Lopez assured the group she would provide all the information it needed.
(Reporting by Manolo Serapio Jr and Enrico dela Cruz; Writing by Karen Lema; Editing by Richard Pullin)