A massive ship right on the beach is something you don’t see every day, especially if it is in a fishing community. Two hours from Manila, a coastal community in Naic, Cavite is going up against a shipyard that has been operating since 2017 right next door to the houses of residents.
Fifty-year-old fisherman Sonny Cuevas has lived in Brgy. Timalan, Balsahan since childhood, and he knows the sea that surrounds his community like the back of his hand. He lives with his wife, three grown children and one granddaughter in a small house that is a minute’s walk from the water.
“Brgy. Timalan has always been my home. I was a boy here, this is where I grew up. I raised my family here, like my parents and grandparents. Our community may be poor, but we live peacefully together. The sea gives us what we need, and we do what we can to protect it. When this shipyard started its operation, life here has deteriorated,” he said. Cuevas alleged that the shipyard operated by Vistamarine Shipbuilding and Ship Repair is creating environmental issues in the coastal barangay.
Sandblasting on the beach
On its Facebook page, Vistamarine prides itself on being certified under ISO 9001:2015 by TUV NORD Philippines. It was also granted a shipbuilding and ship repair license by the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) in December 2017. The government agency is in charge of regulating the Philippine maritime industry of the Philippines.
“We see and hear them doing their sandblasting activities, and we’re very worried about the possible effects on our health, especially our children’s,” Cuevas said.
He has every reason to worry. According to a discussion paper of the Marine Environment Protection Committee (IMO, 44th session, 6-13/3/2000) on marine environment protection, pollutants like steel and other metals, paints, solvents as much as means of grinding and sandblast residues, are strongly related to the raw materials used in the shipbuilding and repair industry. De-greasing solvents, acid and alkaline cleaning agents, metal covering solutions, and many other chemicals are used to prepare and finish surfaces.
The usual pollutants from shipyard operations are vapor organic compositions, particles, lubricants solutions, resins waste, metal containing sludge, and paint color or polishing residues.
Residents seek help from government
Residents of the community already went to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) on October 18 to call attention to the health and environmental risks and to demand that the agency intervene to stop the shipyard’s operations.
“The shipyard is right on the beach, 50 meters away from our homes. Instead of a clean beach, we now have ships parked on the sand. Vistamarine’s operations are just next door to us – we see and hear their machines whirring, and we smell the smoke when they burn off the rust from the hull of the ships they are cleaning or taking apart,” said Cuevas. He said that residents believe that the ship construction activities are adding to the particulate matter and dust levels in the immediate environment.
DENR officials went to the shipyard the day after residents made known their sentiments and conducted investigations. It was mentioned in a report in the news site Rappler that Vistamarine denied that its activities posed an environmental hazard and that instead of sandblasting, they do hydro-blasting to clean the ships which uses water and not abrasive chemicals. This method prevents rust and rust particles removed from the ships from dispersing and mixing with the air.
Still, there are posts on Vistamarine’s Facebook page wherein sandblasting activities were pictured and labelled as such. This is despite the company’s assertion that it does not conduct sandblasting.
A slap on the wrist
The DENR instructed Vistamarine to put up a protective net and tarp walls to cover the site during sandblasting/hydroblasting operations to ensure that the rust does not escape.
In short, DENR’s decision favored Vistamarine and only made recommendations as to how the shipyard should improve its clean-up operations to minimize the impact of the ship cleaning/building/repair operations.
“DENR did not explain to us the basis of their decision to allow Vistamarine to continue operating, and we were not given a copy of their findings. We pray every day that we are not being poisoned slowly from the chemicals we fear are mixing into the air we breathe, the water our children swim in, and the sand we step on,” Cuevas said. He added that they have since learned that runoff from ship cleaning operations can cause marine water quality to deteriorate.
The nearness of shipyard is dangerous to human lives
“We are even prohibited from walking on the beach area where the shipyard is. We used to take that path because it took us to the nearby lake where the oyster farms used to be. The lake and the sand are now so polluted with grease, just like the rest of the estuary. We don’t know if the changes are connected to the shipyard, but they happened around the time the shipyard started its operations,” Cuevas said.
Another resident, Noel Arica, said that residents have not been able to actually see the sandblasting/hydroblasting operations of the shipyard because these activities are done at night.
“We hear them almost every night. We cannot go to the site where the workers do the actual ship cleaning because we would be trespassing. The morning after, we see flakes of rust and paint floating in the water or on the sand,” he told Maritime Fairtrade.
Arica is 59 years old and has been a fisherman for most of his life. He said that it is impossible to not see how the operations of the shipyard have affected the fish catch.
“The residue from the chemicals the shipyard uses – not to mention the oil and grease – mix with the water. Before this shipyard came, we’d catch 12 kilos of shrimp or fish every day; now our catch barely amounts to a kilo. We would have to fish even further out into the bay to get anything worth catching or selling,” he said.
The ambient noise quality in the community has also been affected because of the operation of various ship construction machinery. Typical shipyard equipment that generates noise include generators, compressors, pumps, pneumatic tools, vibrators, concrete mixers, cranes and piling machines. These noises, Arica said, can also drive the marine life away or affect how they breed.
The presence of the massive ships also poses a danger to the small boats. According to Arica, there have been instances that the small boats – barely 12 feet in length and with outriggers made of bamboo – have almost been capsized because the big ships almost hit them while moving into the shipyard.
“Our boats are small, no match for the big ships. The ships enter the shipyard and in inclement weather, the wake of the waves they create, our boats can turn over,” he said.
Lost income opportunities
It is not only health and environmental concerns that have the residents wanting the shipyard gone, it is also the lost livelihood opportunities.
Alyzza Bigalbal, 31, said that before the shipyard moved into their neighborhood, many families made a modest living from putting up picnic tables on the beach for visitors to rent for P300 (US$6) a day. Now that the beach has turned into a docking area for ships and other sea vessels, all of that is gone.
“The air here used to be fresh and people came to spend the day swimming, eating, just having fun with their children. The summers were especially good, and we’d earn up to P2,000 (US$40) a day from renting tables for visitors to use. We can’t do that anymore because the view is wrecked by the ships,” she said.
Paying for nature’s water that used to be free
Bigalbal said that the shipyard has also cut off one of the major sources of freshwater for some 50 households in the community.
“We all used to get water from the pump that’s now on the shipyard’s lot. That water was for drinking, cooking, bathing, and cleaning purposes. Now we have to pay P20 (US$0.40) for every plastic jerry can of water. Not only have we lost income, we’ve also incurred additional expenses for water that used to be free,” she said.
Bigalbal said that she is also very worried about the shipyard’s operations. On the day she spoke to Maritime Fairtrade, she had just seen workers taking apart the hull of a ship using what she said was a blowtorch.
“The stench was bad – it smelled like burning rubber. The smoke was black and went into the air. They started at 9 am and stopped only at 3 pm,” she said.
Another resident, Rodel Roque, 46, said that he has gotten sick from all the fumes. He said that when he went to the doctor, he was told to take better care of his lungs and heart because he had been inhaling fumes from burning metal.
“I used to sleep in front of the house because the sea breeze was good for my lungs, but when I got sick, I stopped,” he said.
Roque’s house is just a foot away from the shipyard, and at night he hears the shipyard workers sandblasting or hammering away.
Human wastes among fish and shrimp
Coastal residents are also protesting against what they said were the unsanitary practices of the workers of the shipyard.
Fisherman Rodolfo Bigalbal, 79, said that there was a time when they tasted a sample of the alamang (small shrimp that is fermented into a paste) they bottled before selling. “It tasted bad. Then we realized when we poured it out that there was human excrement in it. It was disgusting,” he said.
In the earlier mentioned Rappler report, Vistamarine made denial of this allegation and explained how their workers use the toilets on company premises.
In the meantime, how the ships are being docked is also alarming residents. Some of the ships are docked on the beach and not in the shipyard itself.
“The waves bounce off the ships because the ships are like an artificial breakwater. The water makes its way under the beach, eroding the sand and soil under the houses,” said Arica.
Two homeowners have already left when the walls of their houses collapsed.
“We told the DENR about this in the complaint we filed with them, and they said they will have it investigated,” he said.
The Rappler report mentioned that DENR will order the Mines and Geosciences Bureau to investigate the allegations of soil erosion and the investigation will be funded by Vistamarine.
According to shipbuilding monitoring reports, shipyard operations, particularly piling, can cause soil erosion.
“We’re always worried that one of these days, our own house will collapse or the land under it will open up and swallow us up because the water has eroded it,” Arica shared.
“We as long-time residents of the community were not consulted at all before the shipyard was built. We cannot have peace of mind here because we don’t even know if the shipyard has storage for their waste materials and chemicals. We are very worried about groundwater contamination and disposal of sewage into the sea,” said Cuevas.
No support from local authorities
The community has also been calling on the local government to address their complaints against the shipyard. Earlier in February this year, they went to the municipal hall and asked help from Councilor Raffy Dualan who told them to give the local government until March 15 to respond. After the deadline, no response came, but Dualan is now running for mayor.
On March 16, the residents again traveled three hours to the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) and submitted a petition they had put together demanding the suspension of Vistamarine’s operations. Some 300 residents signed the petition.
“We are already concerned about the shipyard operations and the effects these might be having on the natural environment and human health,” community leader and resident Ceniza Catatmon said. “We’re even more concerned now that there are reports that a road-widening project is in the offing. News around the neighborhood is that it’s to make the shipyard more accessible to their clients.”
Sadly, not even the Barangay Captain (the local government official in charge of the community) supports the residents. Community official Christopher Cabuhat has reportedly refused to support the petition against the shipyard.
A broad network of fisherfolk, the Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (PAMALAKAYA), however has already pledged to help the fishing community on the issue.
Every day in the coastal community, the residents discuss among themselves how the Vistamarine’s operations that day might have caused damage to the air, the water, and the land.
“We want the shipyard to stop operating here; we want our lives here to return to what they were before the shipyard came. We’re simple folk, but we have lived here all our lives and we want to protect our way of life, humble as it is. We appeal to the authorities that they look into what’s happening here and help us before it’s too late,” said Cuevas.