Ship owners face criminal charges for massive Philippine oil spill  

On February 28, 2023, the oil tanker M/T Princess Empress, carrying 800,000 liters of industrial fuel oil, sank in Oriental Mindoro, causing extensive environmental damage in and around Mindoro Island.  A year after the oil spill off the coast of Oriental Mindoro in the Philippines, the Department of Justice (DOJ) recommended the filing of charges against the owners of the M/T Princess Empress as well as other parties deemed responsible for the incident. 

This incident had a profound impact, affecting tens of thousands of fishermen in and around the island, causing an estimated initial environmental damage of P7 billion (US$125 million), with mangroves, seagrass beds, and coral reefs bearing the brunt of the spill. 

The consequence of the spill was not just confined to Mindoro Island. It also affected marine resources of other neighboring island towns, like Semirara Island, in the Tablas Strait. 

Revealing the results of their investigation, the DOJ said prosecutors recommended indictments against corporate executives from the ship owner, RDC Reield Marine Services, along with two crew members of the M/T Princess Empress, one private individual, and an employee of the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA).  

The charges leveled against them include: 

•          multiple counts of falsification by a private individual 

•          multiple uses of falsified documents under Article 172 in relation to Article 171 (2) of the Revised Penal Code (RPC) 

•          multiple counts of falsification of public or official documents under Article 171 (4) of the RPC 

While the environmental complaint is still pending, the recommendation of charges indicates that the prosecutors are poised to initiate criminal proceedings before a court. Meanwhile, charges against other respondents have been recommended for dismissal due to insufficient evidence. 

According to the prosecutors, their investigation revealed irregularities in certain documents related to the construction and certification of the M/T Princess Empress. They also uncovered instances where RDC Reield submitted falsified documents, including construction certificates and affidavits of ownership. 

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s aerial inspection in April last year of the oil spill which occurred near Oriental Mindoro. Photos credit: Presidential Communications Office

One year after, fisherfolk still await full compensation 

Mayor Jennifer Cruz of Pola, Oriental Mindoro, hailed the DOJ’s decision, citing the ongoing negative impact of the oil spill on the town’s economy and livelihood.  

Pola town was deemed the epicenter of the oil spill, which, according to a report of the private advocacy group Center for Energy, Ecology, and Development, may have reached P41.2 billion in environmental and economic damages. 

Despite the completion of oil removal and siphoning operations by the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) in June 2023, the lack of accountability from the ship owner has left civic leaders and affected communities dissatisfied. 

For Cruz, it is imperative to hold the ship owner accountable as she urged them to contribute to the town’s recovery efforts. 

“The owner of the ship should really be held accountable because until now, we can still feel the effect of the oil spill on our livelihood, and our town continues to struggle to move on from the incident. We are hoping that the ship owner will pay to help in the recovery because Pola’s multibillion-peso economic loss is no joke,” Cruz said. 

One year has passed since the disaster, but many Pola fisherfolk, whose livelihoods depend on the sea, are still waiting for proper compensation. 

Annabel Ferrera Fabula, a village head of ‘Buhay na Tubig’ which translates in English as “living water,” said that several affected fishers in their town have not received full payment. 

“There are still those who have not received compensation from the insurance company of the sunken tanker,” Fabula told Maritime Fairtrade in Filipino.  

She described the adverse effects of the oil spill on their livelihoods, which include disruptions in fishing activities and economic hardship endured by their community. In her community, families earn an income by net fishing, others set out to sea to catch fish, and some gather shells and seaweed to sell. 

Meanwhile, the recent lifting of the state of calamity on February 26 offers a glimmer of hope for the revival of the local tourism industry and a return to normalcy for fishermen, according to Mayor Cruz. 

“The lifting of the state of calamity will revive the local tourism industry and will erase doubts among fisherfolk whether to fish or not,” Cruz said. 

“Swimming is now allowed as we have cleaned the area, although there are still traces of oil slick,” she added. 

Oil spill cleanup by the Philippine Coast Guard.

Lack of accountability, calls for justice for victims  

However, concerns persist, with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) denouncing the ongoing lack of accountability and calling for justice and proper compensation for victims of the oil spill. 

“We decry the continued elusiveness of accountability on the part of companies behind the oil spill, and erring authorities that contributed to the incident,” the CBCP Episcopal Commission on Social Action, Justice, and Peace, and Caritas Philippines said. Caritas Philippines is the humanitarian, development, and advocacy arm of the CBCP, under the direction and supervision of the Episcopal Commission on Social Action-Justice and Peace.

According to the bishops, both the people and the environment continue to suffer from the impacts of the oil spill. 

“For over half a year afterward, thousands of fisherfolk and other sectors were robbed of their means of living. Families have little to eat, and many also suffered illnesses from exposure to pollution. Thousands of hectares of mangroves and seagrasses were placed in peril, and so was the very fabric of life in our seas,” they said. 

“We also lend our voice to the call for justice for victims of the oil spill, and for sufficient and timely compensation that genuinely takes into account the damages that fisherfolk communities incur and continue to incur,” they added. 

The bishops further said: “The gravity of impacts have yet to be fully measured and continues to ripple today and in years to come.” 

The CBCP and Caritas also recognized how the oil spill served as “a backdrop for action and compassion” for people in Mindoro, as well as groups and individuals who joined forces to help assist the victims. 

With that, they expressed hope that the same kind of solidarity can be demonstrated today “for justice for our brothers and sisters that were affected, and to call for action so that the Verde Island Passage would never again be subjected to a tragedy like the said oil spill in the future.” 

Oil spill cleanup by the Philippine Coast Guard.

All photos credit Philippine Coast Guard unless otherwise stated.

Top photo: Oil spill cleanup by the Philippine Coast Guard

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