Atlas Mining at 65

By: Jobers R. Bersales August 01,2018 - 08:14 PM

Atlas Consolidated Mining and Development Corp. (ACMDC) turned 65 last month quietly and with no fuss. This once proud owner of Toledo Copper Mine, the largest in Asia in the 1970s, has actually spun off a subsidiary, Carmen Copper Corp., that continues to produce copper at the very same mine site in Lutopan (now Brgy. Don Andres Soriano) since 2006.

It was through the dogged vision of Don Andres Soriano that the company was formed following the merger of three of his mining companies: Masbate Consolidated Mining Co., IXL Mines and Antamok Gold Fields Inc. in July 1953.

In 1935, the young Soriano had founded Masbate Consolidated Mining (MCM) following a successful gold mining exploration on the island. And then World War II happened. Soriano then donned his army uniform, eventually entering the battle scene in Bataan before being ordered to withdraw to Corregidor and then accompany Quezon and MacArthur as they left the island fortress for Australia in February 1942.

After the war, Soriano picked up the pieces of what was left of the Masbate mine, which was fortunately taken care of quite well by the occupying Japanese forces. Due to the low price of gold in the early post-war years, he and his vice-president, another war veteran by the name of Col. Charles Smith, looked for the metal most needed in post-war reconstruction, iron and copper. Col. Smith had heard of copper claims owned by Mindanao Mother Lode Inc. in Lutopan. There was a small underground copper mine there owned by a Japanese in the 1930s and during the war, the Imperial Japanese Administration had attempted to reopen it. It looked promising according to Col. Smith, in a meeting held by the board in late 1952.

It helped that Mitsubishi Mining and Metal Corp. was also looking for a steady supply of copper concentrates and was willing to provide the money to run the mine. In August 1953, all the usable equipment at the Masbate mine was brought to Lutopan and in quick succession a small open pit mine (now since closed and filled up) and a crushing-processing plant, later called the Don Andres Soriano Concentrator (DASCon) was constructed and by late 1953, the first delivery of copper concentrates to Japan was made.

Japan had by this time become an important base of the United States as the Korean War loomed in the horizon. Its industrial might was shown most vividly and also tragically in WWII. By 1953, her need for copper, an important conductor or electricity and a major raw material in virtually all industrial products, was insatiable.
And so in leaps and bounds, as Japan’s industrial recovery marched on, so did the success story of Atlas Mining. By 1963, the once-sleepy town of Toledo had been elevated into a city by an Act of Congress, the city built by a mineral and only the second city of Cebu at the time. Nothing can be a more concrete manifestation of the tremendous impact of Atlas than this.

In 1964, Atlas began mulling the idea of going underground, which was finally carried out in 1966 as prices continued to gallop and then need for more copper ore was becoming more urgent by the day. And then the energy crisis erupted in 1973 and prices of copper began to fluctuate erratically. By 1983, with the Philippine economy in crisis, Atlas was showing signs of distress amid continuing fluctuations in the price of copper in the world market, coupled with the rapid collapse of the peso vis-à-vis the US dollar. With loans denominated in dollars, this was not a good time for the company.

By the 1990s a radical, left-leaning union had held swayed on its workers, now demanding more benefits and a seat at the table. Following a devastating typhoon in late 1993, causing tremendous damage to its open pit and underground mines, Atlas called it quits and closed operations. The once-vibrant township and housing communities in Lutopan that were built by Atlas fell silent, with many of its occupants counting among the 12,000 employees waking up one day without jobs. Some went abroad, having attained skills that were the envy of foreign construction firms. By the time the Toledo mine closed, Atlas had reforested 1,344 hectares of the mine camp. Only 220 employees were retained to watch over the mine and maintain its facilities to reopen one day.

I am told in the years that followed this sudden closure, parish priests of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church in Lutopan would always include in the community prayers an invocation to God to help reopen the mine. And God must have listened, for on September 16, 2006, Carmen Copper Corp. was founded by Atlas to reopen the mine. That day has now become the anniversary people observe at the mine but the memories of the halcyon days of Atlas Mining linger on and will be celebrated soon when the Carmen Copper Heritage Center will open to the public.

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