Groups press gov’t to act faster on containment; ASEAN assistance eyed
Oil from the MT Princess Empress, which sank with its cargo of 800,000 liters of industrial fuel on Feb. 28, has reached Calapan, the capital city of Oriental Mindoro, local officials said Friday, as conservationists pressed the national government to act more quickly.
In a radio interview, Oriental Mindoro Gov. Humerlito “Bonz” Dolor confirmed reports that the oil slick from the tanker has reached Calapan City, about 500 meters from the shoreline.
Dolor said the trajectory of the oil flow remained on point with simulations run by the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute. At this rate, the oil spill might get to the northern part of Mindoro and other rich marine reserves if the “amihan” or the northeast monsoon winds die down.
Calapan City is about 54 kilometers from where the tanker went down, near the town of Pola.
Responders have already placed spill booms in parts of the river to prevent water contamination as the environmental disaster threatens the livelihood of residents in the area.
Dolor said a 45-day cash-for-work program will be offered to affected residents.
As of March 15, the Office of Civil Defense reported a total of 31,497 families in the MIMAROPA and Western Visayas regions have been affected by the oil spill.
In an interview with CNN Philippines last night, Theresa Mundita Lim, ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity Executive Director, said it’s very important to work together with the region to address marine disasters such as oil spills.
Lim said there is an ASEAN cooperation on oil spill response that was signed in 2018.
“This is an opportunity to operationalize this agreement among ASEAN member-states in the face of this disaster in the Philippines,” she said.
In a statement, the center added that further studies are needed to find out the trajectory of the oil spill and if it could affect nearby countries.
“We cannot focus only on immediate response, we need to start talking about prevention and reducing such risks from ever happening again,” the ASEAN body said, adding regional leaders are talking about “nature-based solutions” to address marine disasters.
The conservationist group Protect the Verde Island Passage (VIP)called for stronger action from President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and the national government to safeguard what it described as one of the most productive ecosystems in the world.
Fr. Edwin Gariguez, Protect VIP convener and director of the Diocesan Social Action Center of Calapan, said local groups and volunteers can only do so much.
“We do not want the oil response to suffer the same fate of the sunken tanker —the captain must steer the ship toward safety and that someone should be the President,” he said.
The City of Calapan is considered a major economic center ofOccidental Mindoro, Oriental Mindoro, Marinduque, Romblon and Palawan, he said.
“The only way to achieve the President’s hope to clean up the oil spill in four months is to compel government agencies to direct all resources for containment. We are also in support of the consensus raised during the Senate hearing for the need to assign an oil spill response chief,” Gariguez said.
“Mr. President, the Verde Island Passage is a crucial contributor to the Philippine economy. You must move now,” he added.
Protect VIP has been adamant in its stance to demand full accountability from companies at fault: RDC Reield Marine Services as the owner of the MT Princess Empress, and SL Harbor Bulk Terminal Corp., a subsidiary of San Miguel Corp.
“The government is moving, but not fast enough. Half a month has passed already and the… remote operating vehicle (ROV) will not arriveuntil next week. In the short term, we need to identify who would compensate the affected residents and pay for the environmental damage to VIP.”
“In the long run, our policymakers should not just look at oil spills from sunken ships, but also how to minimize the traffic of ships carrying poisonous cargo through this vulnerable area,” Gariguez said.
Fisher groups in the provinces surrounded by the Verde Island Passagehave expressed worries about their livelihood and the effectiveness of the response.
“We do not only worry about the oil spill, but we fear for what kind of support and response we can get. We have seen the plight of our fishermen in Pola and Naujan. We fishermen in Batangas within the Verde Island Passage are upset. We are one with the other fisher folkin the call for a swift, complete, and long-term support from the local government unit and the national government,” said the Bukluran ng Mangingisda ng Batangas in a statement.
The Verde Island Passage is a strait that separates the islands ofLuzon and Mindoro and that provides food, livelihood opportunities and other benefits to more than 2 million people.
As the center of global shore-fish biodiversity, it is also home to charismatic species, such as whale sharks, sea turtles, nudibranchs, and an impressive array of corals.
The Center for Energy, Ecology, and Development (CEED), a sustainability think-tank and Protect VIP convenor, deployed a team to survey the affected areas in Oriental Mindoro, noting that a no-fishing ban was imposed within those areas.
“It’s not just fisher folk. These (affected) barangays depend on theseas to bring in money for trade, transport, and tourism, and soon, the whole country would feel it, too,” the group’s executive director,Gerry Rances, said.
“The fishing sector in the Verde Island Passage area, which includes Oriental Mindoro, was valued at P11.8 billion in 2021, while in 2019, its tourism industry generated P3.5 billion. There must be decisive action to minimize the impact and demand accountability from thecharterer and ship owner which seem to be heading toward a bailout based on how the Senate hearing last week went,” Rances said.
In other developments:
• Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla on Friday said he will consider recommending the grounding of the three sister vessels of MTPrincess Empress. “These vessels should be grounded especially they belong to the same owner,” Remulla said. “MT Princess Empress is the newest licensee. These are four vessels. The owner just didn’t place them in one permit. This early, we should stop them before the same incident happens again,” he added. Earlier, Remulla said the MT Princess Empress had been misrepresented as a new vessel. Despite galewarnings, the vessel left the port of Feb. 28 and eventually sank. Remulla said an inter-agency panel will be formed in the case-build up to determine civil and criminal cases that may be filed against the owners of the MT Princess Empress.
• The Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) said it was also considering grounding other ships of the owner of the sunken tanker.
• Senator Risa Hontiveros said the latest findings by the Department of Justice confirm the initial findings during a Senate probe that officials from the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and MARINA should be held accountable for their “undeniable negligence and nonfeasance” in the incident. She said PCG officials who directly allowed this “scrap ship” to depart from Bataan on Feb. 28, despite its failure to meet all the PCG’s pre-departure checklist. “They should answer not only for this incident, but also for the alleged eight other times that the scrap ship had been allowed to sail.”
• Senator Sherwin Gatchalian expressed alarm over a possible fishshortage and livelihood loss for the residents of Oriental Mindoro, where fishing is a primary source of livelihood. He said locals fear more fishers will bear the brunt as some 13,000 fishers and theirfamilies in Mindoro alone have already been affected. Fish production,the senator said, is expected to decline in the coming months as the oil spill has now reached Antique and Palawan and could possibly reach Romblon and Aklan, where the country’s premier tourist destination of Boracay is located.