The Japanese vessel Shin Nichi Maru carrying the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) capable of finding the MT Princess Empress, which sank and spilled 800,000 liters of industrial oil off the coast of Oriental Mindoro, has arrived in Calapan City, authorities said Monday.
This was after the Philippine Coast Guard gave conflicting reports of the oil spill finally reaching Isla Verde, a part of Batangas City, in the Verde Island Passage — recognized as the center of global shore-fish biodiversity, and which provides food and livelihood to more than two million people.
Yesterday morning, the PCG Batangas Station under Capt. Victorino Acosta reported that oil had reached the shores of Isla Verde, with community officials on the island saying it reached Barangays San Agapito, San Antonio, and San Andres.
As Acosta confirmed the oil slick in radio interviews, pictures and videos posted by news organizations on social media also showed Coast Guard crews in Batangas gathering oil slick samples into pails and other containers.
“We are already combating it at around 4.4 nautical miles. There are oil sheens, but some are making a landfall which are black in color,” the PCG Batangas leader told radio DZBB.
But in the afternoon, Coast Guard spokesperson Armando Balilo said the island was “negative” for the oil spill after an aerial inspection.
“During the aerial inspection from 1PM to 4PM, the PCG confirmed that Verde Island and its vicinity waters no longer have traces of an oil spill,” the spokesman said.
PCG Commandant Admiral Artemio Abu also said the aerial assessment revealed the full reach of the oil spill resulting from the sunken tanker, which went down on Feb. 28 near Naujan, Oriental Mindoro.
Abu added that the PCG was coordinating with towns or coastal areas where the oil spill might reach.
Acosta, meanwhile, assured that Batangas province has already been preparing for the spill and has put in place improvised oil spill booms and other equipment.
The PCG also said it has contracted experts from the United States and Japan who are in the country to help in the clean-up.
Balilo said the PCG requested help from the US, including another ROV that could help find the sunken tanker.
“Getting the sunken ship is not part of the plan,” said Balilo. “What we’re initially planning is to patch up a hole in the ship, if there’s any, and then have the oil siphoned out.”
The ROV Hakuyo from Japan would get first crack in locating the MT Princess Empress, which is reportedly moored 400 meters below sea level, a depth local ROVs or divers could not reach.
Environment Secretary Ma. Antonio Yulo-Loyzaga said it was important to pinpoint where the oil tanker sank to determine the extent of the damage to marine protected areas and the livelihood of the fishermen in the province.
Environmental groups including Oceana Philippines, Greenpeace Philippines, and Center for Energy, Ecology, and Development (CEED) on Monday raised the alarm over the continued spread of the oil spill from the sunken tanker and called for a sustained and thorough investigation.
In a statement read during a public forum, the groups decried the “disruption caused by the oil spill from MT Princess Empress to the lives and livelihood of coastal communities and the health of critical marine biodiversity — as the fuel tanker sank in waters belonging to the Verde Island Passage, the most biodiverse marine habitat in the world that is undeniably a national ecological treasure for the Philippines.”
The groups called on the national government to “immediately contain and remove the oil spill, with full transparency on the status of containment and removal towards affected communities and the Filipino public and streamlined leadership in overall disaster risk reduction and management efforts.”
The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) on Monday estimated that the country is losing P5 million a day as fishermen continue to observe a fishing ban because of the oil toxins in the water. Now, almost half the residents in affected towns no longer have a livelihood, Oriental Mindoro Gov. Humerlito Dolor said.
BFAR chief information officer Nazario Briguera said that 19,000 fishermen in nine municipalities in Oriental Mindoro were affected by the oil slick, and this translated to P5 million lost every day.
BFAR earlier said the oil spill, which has also reached nearby provinces like Antique, Palawan, and Batangas, would not cause a nationwide shortage of fish.
Meanwhile, the Oriental Mindoro Provincial Agriculture Office (PAGO) said that 22 marine protected areas were affected by the oil spill. Dead fish and sea birds were seen from the shore of Pola town.
More than 3,800 fishermen in the towns of Naujan, Pola, and Pinamalayan were affected by the oil spill, the Oriental Mindoro PAGO said.
The Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), meanwhile, said more than 150,000 people have been affected by the massive oil spill in Oriental Mindoro.
In a public briefing, DSWD Assistant Bureau Director Miramel Laxa said that as of March 20, about 32,661 families or 151,463 individuals were adversely affected by the oil spill.
The affected population spanned across 131 barangays in Oriental Mindoro, Palawan, and Antique provinces, Laxa said.
Opposition senators on Monday said officials of the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) and the PCG who allowed the ill-fated MT Princess Empress to sail should be held accountable for the massive oil spill.
Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel III and Deputy Minority Leader Risa Hontiveros said the officials of these agencies should not be spared as they allowed the ship to sail, despite questions about its seaworthiness and the lack of proper documentation.
The opposition senators said the Coast Guard should be imposed the gravest penalty for permitting to the motor tanker to leave Bataan on Feb. 27.
They also noted that Marina officials and the owner of the ship, RDC Reiled Marine Services, should also be held accountable.
Despite the lack of proper documents, the tanker was allowed to sail nine times—suggesting someone influential may have been involved, Pimentel said.
Abu said the Coast Guard welcomes the investigation by the Department of Justice and said they too are conducting their own investigation into possible lapses that let the oil tanker leave port.