(PHILSTAR) By Cet Dematera – After the sudden explosion of Mayon volcano last May 7 that killed five climbers and injured 22 others, local authorities have agreed that there is a need for Congress to pass a law that will regulate climbing in the active volcano.

Cedric Daep, chief of the Albay Public Safety and Emergency Management Office (Apsemo), said the regulatory measure must be a national law to be passed by Congress so it will supersede existing laws that allow trekking on the volcano anytime.

Daep said at present, there is no law that legally prohibits ascent to Mayon although local policies have to be complied with by those who intend to climb.

For instance, the six-kilometer radius permanent danger zone imposed by the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) around Mayon volcano prohibits any form of human activity within the area.

“But people continue to defy this prohibition because they seem to take it as a mere warning or reiteration of a danger that anybody might expose himself to anytime the volcano turns abnormal,” Daep told The STAR.

He also said that under Republic Act 7586 or the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) Act of 1992, it is the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) that issues permits to enter Mayon volcano, being one of the protected areas in the country. And it is the Department of Tourism (DOT) that issues accreditation to Mayon tour guides.

“Because there is no law or official policy requiring them to ask permission from our office (Albay provincial government), they climb Mayon without bothering to seek any advice or briefing from us about the condition of the volcano,” Daep said.

He added that for the last two years, no one went to his office to seek a briefing on the condition of Mayon volcano.

Despite this, the Apsemo chief said Albay sets up checkpoints manned jointly with law enforcers whenever the volcano is in the abnormal stage.

“If you remember during Mayon’s 2009 eruption, (Albay) Gov. (Joey) Salceda had to order a forced evacuation by physically booting out residents who refused to leave the permanent danger zone. He also ordered cutting off of power and water supplies around the volcano just to force them to leave,” Daep said.

Maria Ravanilla, Bicol director of the DOT, agreed that an ordinance regulating Mayon climbing has to be passed soon to avoid a repeat of the May 7 eruption that killed a Spanish and three German climbers and their local guide.

“In fact, I already made comments on a proposed ordinance from Albay that passed my office months ago. I believe that such ordinance would help effectively regulate climbing on Mayon,” Ravanilla told The STAR.

Ravanilla also clarified that although their office is the one accrediting Mayon tour guides, they are not issuing permits to climb the 2,464-meter volcano.

“We want to make it very clear that we are not issuing permits to trek Mayon. We do not have jurisdiction over this volcano,” Ravanilla added.

DENR-Bicol regional executive director Gilbert Gonzales ordered a temporary stop to the issuance of visitor’s permits to enter Mayon’s protected area shortly after the May 7 tragedy.

Gonzales said they would first seek permission from Phivolcs before issuing visitor’s permits to the protected Mayon forest.

Meanwhile, Salceda said he has ordered the crafting of a protocol that would lay down guidelines for trekking Mayon volcano.

“All we need here is a protocol that would serve as basis in trekking Mayon. In the absence of such, we are not recommending any trek to the volcano,” Salceda said.

Salceda also brushed aside reports that the provincial government of Albay is not enforcing the ban on entering the permanent danger zone.

“In fact, we had already relocated hundreds of residents within and outside the permanent danger zone long before the 2009 Mayon eruption,” he added.

Salceda: Change Mayon alert level

Salceda also called on the Phivolcs to change the alert level zero for Mayon volcano, saying it is “deceptive.”

In their interview with Salceda, survivors said the four European mountaineers and their local guide, who nearly made it to the crater of the volcano, could have interpreted the alert level zero as the absence of risks on the active volcano.

“They said they read the present alert level and when they saw it was zero, of course, even if they read all the prohibitions as well as qualifiers and conditions, what sticks to their mind is the word zero,” Salceda said.

“This alert level should be removed because it is meaningless. It only misleads and it is deceptive,” he added.

Salceda suggests that alert level zero should refer to dormant volcanoes and not active volcanoes like Mayon.

Currently, Phivolcs has a five-step alert level for Mayon volcano.

Alert level zero means no eruption in the foreseeable future. Alert level 1 means low level of seismic unrest characterized by magmatic, tectonic or hydrothermal disturbance but no eruption is imminent. Alert level 2 means moderate level of seismic activity and other unrest with positive evidence for involvement of magma.

Alert level 3 means a relatively high and increasing unrest, including numerous low frequency volcanic earthquakes, and accelerating ground deformation. Alert level 4 means an intense unrest, including harmonic tremor, dome growth and small explosions, while Alert level 5 means hazardous eruption in progress.

Salceda has observed that Philvocs defines normal value as the absence of violent or hazardous explosion, and he suggests that the alert level zero be changed to normal plus.

“What does it mean when Mayon is normal? The adjective is normal but it is not zero,” said Salceda.

“So they have to change that. Not alert level zero, but alert -1, -2, -3, -4 and -5,” he added.

Phivolcs: Alert level zero can’t be changed

But Phivolcs executive director Renato Solidum yesterday said the institute could not follow Salceda’s suggestion and when it comes to Mayon volcano, risks are still involved even at alert level zero.

Solidum said, “The alert level is about the condition of the volcano, it is not about the risk.”

“There is always the risk from the summit. The risk is always there, that is why alert level zero means that the condition of the volcano in terms of its monitored parameters indicate there is no imminent threat from an explosive eruption, meaning the magmatic eruption,” he added. – With Celso Amo, Evelyn Macairan

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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