Oil spills from sunken tanker risk lives, livelihood of 23,000 families 

A total of 108,162 individuals, or 23,005 families, in 118 barangays (districts) in the Oriental Mindoro and Palawan regions of the Philippines are now reeling from the effects of a massive oil spill on February 28.

The oil tanker MT Princess Empress sank in the ocean area near Naujan in Oriental Mindoro, causing 800,000 liters of industrial oil to spill into the ocean. Economic activities in the previously busy fishing community of one of the affected coastal towns, Pola, have effectively grounded to a halt.

The oil tanker sank after it experienced engine trouble and was hit by strong waves. The ship was headed to Iloilo in the Visayas region after setting off from Bataan. All 20 crew members were immediately rescued by a passing foreign vessel.

As of this writing, spill response operations are ongoing led by the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) in coordination with the Coast Guard Station Oriental Mindoro, Marine Environmental Protection Unit-Southern Tagalog, and M/TUG Titan.

Based on estimates from marine experts, around 36,000 hectares of coral reefs, mangroves, and seagrass are in danger of being damaged. Local authorities have already imposed a ban on fishing activities and prohibited swimming in contaminated waters.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) said the sunken vessel has been releasing 35,000 to 50,000 liters of oil per day. It would take 15 to 20 days to actually empty the ship.

Mindoro.

From one of the fishing communities, resident Cherry Mendoza Abante said they are already very worried as to where they will get money for their daily needs, if they are not able to fish.

“We rely on fishing every day. The five kilos of rice given by the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) were enough for only two days. We can’t go to sea, we don’t have any other source of income. We are begging for help,” she said.

Another resident, Veronica Montoya Datinguinoo, said the ship owners should shoulder all the losses all of the families have incurred since the oil spill and until the clean-up is complete.

“We don’t know when things will get back to normal. The ship owners should come and see for themselves how we are suffering because of the oil spill. We have lost so much income,” she said.

Lorena Sadian Quismundo shared that while the impact of the oil spill was not as severe as in Pola, their community in Brgy. Papandayan is still affected.

“Most of us make a living from fishing, and we can’t do that now. We are being forced to rely on food packs and donations from the government,” she said.

Oil spills on beach.

Charterer must also take responsibility 

The MT Princess Empress is owned by RDC Reield Marine Services which is an all-Filipino-owned family corporation established in July 2014.

The ship, IMO 9985136, is a double-hulled oil products tanker built in 2022 with a deadweight of 1,143 tons and a gross tonnage of 508 tons. It sails under the Philippine flag with P&I Insurance through The Shipowners Club and is registered with the Orient Register of Shipping, Inc. (ORS)

While the RDC Reield Marine Services has admitted ownership of the ship and responsibility for the oil spill, the investigative news site Rappler.com has discovered that the charterer is SL Harbor Bulk Terminal Corporation, a subsidiary of San Miguel Shipping and Lighterage Corporation.  

According to the Rappler findings, SL Harbor Bulk Terminal Corporation, a registered importer of petroleum products, owns fuel storage facilities in Limay, Bataan, as well as an oil terminal in Tagaloan, Cagayan de Oro. 

San Miguel Shipping and Lighterage is under publicly listed San Miguel Corporation, a diversified conglomerate led by president Ramon S. Ang. It handles the shipping requirements of the conglomerate. The conglomerate’s shipping business is separate from its oil (Petron) and energy (SMC Global Power) business.

Because of this, environmental groups such as Greenpeace Philippines and the Center for Energy, Ecology, and Development (CEED) are saying that as the charterer, the San Miguel Corporation is considered the spiller and owner of the vessel involved.

A volunteer scrubbing oil from rocks. Brgy. Calima, Pola, Oriental Mindoro.

Gerry Arances of CEED said that the company must pay a cash bond of at least P70 million (US$ 1,279,812), of which P50 million should be allotted for the ocean and beach clean-up and containment and P20 million for damages and payment to the affected communities.

In its position paper submitted to the senate committee on the environment investigating the spill, Greenpeace Philippines questioned the lack of transparency and accountability on the part of the companies involved and even government agencies.

“Greenpeace notes with grave concern how the companies involved in this major catastrophe have not come out with urgency to take responsibility for the spill and its impacts,” the group wrote.

“We must remember that unless the companies involved are held fully accountable, it is the government that will shoulder the costs for ‘clean-up,’ rehabilitation and long-term rehabilitation of the ecosystems and communities impacted, in effect cleaning up and paying for the pollution private companies have caused,” it added.

A volunteer scoops oil spills on surface of ocean.

Impact on marine life

Oil spills can have a significant impact on marine life, causing both short-term and long-term damages to various species and their habitats. Oil contains chemicals, such as benzene, toluene, and xylene, which are toxic to marine life, damaging their nervous and reproductive systems.

Oil spills also coat the surface of the water, making it difficult for marine animals to breathe. Also, oil coats the feathers and fur of birds and mammals, and they will be unable to regulate their body temperature.

One of the most serious effects of oil spills is the disruption of the food chain, leading to a decrease in population for certain species. When oil is consumed by smaller organisms, it can accumulate in their tissues, causing harm to larger organisms that consume them. 

Marine animals also suffer behavioral changes such as disorientation, confusion, and altered migration patterns. These changes can affect the survival and reproduction of species.

The destruction that oil spills can also wreak on habitats is potentially massive, affecting coral reefs, mangroves, and marshes, that provide homes and food for marine animals.  

Residents of the affected communities such as Pola are now reporting the effects of oil spill exposure. On March 10, around 18 people have fallen sick from inhaling the air around the oil spill. According to health experts, exposure to the toxic chemicals found in oil spills can pose health risks to people, particularly those with pre-existing health conditions. Inhalation or skin contact with oil or fumes can cause respiratory problems, headaches, nausea, and skin irritation.

Anxiety is also high among the residents. As the days pass, the owners of MT Princess Empress have yet to deliver any assistance. Residents are severely worried over the threat to livelihood and jobs.  There is already talk that those living near the area of the spill may be forced to evacuate due to health risks or safety concerns.  

The Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction Management Office (PDRRMO) in Oriental Mindoro has released information curated from the Coast Guard, the DENR and the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority, that nine out of 15 municipalities in the province are currently affected by the oil spill. In these areas, there are 111 barangays with fisherfolk whose livelihoods are affected, while the number of families affected is pegged at 19,556.

Volunteers clean the beach.

History of oil spills in the Philippines

The Philippines has a long history of oil spills. In 1993, an oil spill occurred in Batangas City when a tanker carrying 100,000 liters of oil collided with a barge. The spill affected over 200 hectares of mangrove forest and caused significant damage to the local fishing industry. In 1996 was the oil spill in Guimaras when an oil tanker ran aground and spilled over 150,000 gallons of oil into the surrounding waters. The spill affected over 1,000 hectares of mangrove forest and caused significant damage to the local fishing industry.

Fishing communities in Cavite still remember the West Delta oil spill in 2010 when a pipeline owned by the Petron Corporation leaked and spilled over 500,000 liters of oil into the surrounding waters. The spill affected over 20 kilometers of coastline and caused significant damage to the local fishing industry.

There was also the Bohol oil spill in 2013 when a cargo ship carrying 120,000 liters of diesel fuel ran aground. The oil spread and affected over 10 kilometers of coastline.

No permit to operate 

According to the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA), the MT Princess Empress has no permit to operate and take to the sea. The ship’s application is still pending with the agency as amendments are needed for the ship’s certificate of public convenience.

The coast guard authorities also admitted that the ship’s documents are incomplete. This was discovered during the inspection conducted on the ship before it sailed. The coast guard is also now being questioned by authorities for allowing the ship to take to sea six times previously before it sank when the coast guard knew that the ship had no permit.

Experts from the UP Marine Science Institute (UP MSI) have put together a model to gauge the spread of the oil spill. They said because of the weakening weather front, some parts of the main oil spill can travel towards the Verde Island Passage (VIP), an important marine corridor and a global center of marine biodiversity, and some parts of Batangas.

Associate Professor Irene Rodriguez of the UP MSI added that their predictions were not 100 percent accurate because the model does not consider the factors of “dispersion, evaporation, emulsification, and oil degradation.” The assumption is that the oil is still moving like a buoyant particle.

As of this writing, the oil spill has already entered the Amante River in the Batuhan district of Pola. Residents were shocked to find traces of the oil in the river waters despite the spill boom erected near the river.

“We’ve learned that the damages from oil spills are long-lasting,” said Paul Horsman, Greenpeace Strategy Advisor. “30 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, for example, traces of the oil can still be found in the sediment in those affected areas. It’s not that obvious as black tides coming in; it’s more of what you don’t see when all the cameras have gone and the environment is trying to recover—that’s when the longer-term effects begin to be felt by the environment and communities who have to live with them.”

RDC Reield Marine Services, the owners of the ship, said international oil spill experts from the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF) are now providing technical advice to all parties involved in the cleanup. It also said the services of the specialist French oil spill response company, Le Floch Depollution (LFD), have been retained and it is now mobilizing local assets and personnel, deploying necessary resources within the Philippines, and importing needed equipment from overseas.

A volunteer performing the daunting task of cleaning off oil from stones along the rocky coastline of Brgy. Calima, Pola, Oriental Mindoro.

Accountability is needed

From day one, the environmental groups, alongside civil society organizations and the Catholic Church in Oriental Mindoro, have been demanding accountability for the oil spill.

Atty. Liza Osorio, Oceana Legal and Policy Director, pointed out there are accountability measures in place already in Philippine laws, for example, the polluter pays principle. She explained that the law spells out the liability for those responsible for the oil spill.

Atty. Osorio said the Ferdinand Marcos Jr. government should enforce more stringent measures on fossil fuel service providers and shipping companies. These measures, she said, cover cleanup operations at sea, preventive measures, consequential laws or loss of earnings, pure economic loss, and also importantly, damage to human health or loss of life.

Greenpeace Philippines is adamant in its call, saying the government should demand full responsibility from those involved in the oil spill. It said companies should not be allowed to get away scot-free and avoid their environmental and social accountability for clean-up and economic damages.

The group argued that the tanker owner was slow to take responsibility for the spill. Two weeks after the spill, the cargo owner has not come out and their identity has remained under wraps, with no government agency calling them out to take accountability. While the owner of the tanker, RDC Reield Marine Services, has apologized for its role in the spill, the owner of the oil cargo is yet to be officially named.

Greenpeace reiterated the need for transparency from the government and urged lawmakers to conduct an inquiry that will pursue accountability of the companies involved and seek reparations for affected communities.

Top photo credit: Philippine Coast Guard

All other photos credit: Greenpeace Philippines

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