THE term “oil spill” conceals the enormity of the disaster from the MT Princess Empress when it sank off the coast of Pola town in Oriental Mindoro. Oil wasn’t just discharged from the vessel — it is still being discharged. There’s still a lot of oil spilling to our seas, to our seashores.
Other than the actual damage to the environment as well as to the health and livelihood of the residents of the coastal villages already affected by it, there could be another cost, as the oil slick could reach internationally known tourist beach resorts as Boracay and Coron in Palawan, as the tourism department tactlessly announced.
The damage to our economy could even be just because of perceptions. The respected British newspaper The Guardian published a long article replete with vivid photos of oil darkening a white-sand beach, while the Washington Post headline was: “A tanker sank and spilled oil. Then came reports of nausea, headaches.” The Philippine-hater Agence France-Presse sent throughout the world its dispatch entitled, “Sunken Philippine tanker leaks industrial fuel oil into sea, concern for environment, tourism.” The headline of Splash247.com, a popular website for the maritime industry, was cruel for us: “Tanker oil spill spreads far and wide in central Philippines.”
With those kind of headlines, it is not unlikely that we’ll be having a slump in tourist arrivals, just when the summer tourist season is starting.
The UP’s Marine Sciences Institute reported that “approximately 20,000 hectares of coral reef, 9,900 ha of mangroves and 6,000 ha of seagrass may be affected by the oil slick in 22 municipalities in Mindoro, Antique and Palawan. More than half of potentially affected reefs (11,000 ha) are found in the Cuyo group of islands.”
Indeed, those gloomy headlines would not be totally wrong because of, first, the government’s helplessness in dealing with oil spills, and second, because there has been no central leadership running a task force to address the disaster, only a clown pretending to be.
Industrial fuel oil — the product the vessel was carrying — didn’t just spill on February 28. It is likely still spilling after 12 days now, based on the explanation of an executive of Harbor Star Shipping Services, which the owner of the vessel, RDC Reield Marine Service, contracted to to stop the leak from the sunken vessel.
The executive gave that explanation in a meeting on March 6 presided by Oriental Mindoro Gov. Humerlito Dolor. (Strangely the vessels’ ultimate owners haven’t been identified, although Dolor said that he had met with the firm’s vice president, Fritzie Tee, who told him, “We’re not just children of the owner, we are the owners.”)
Would you believe after 12 days now, the exact location of the sunken vessel is still unknown?
The Harbor Star executive said finding the vessel deep in the ocean floor and plugging the leak from it through which the oil is being discharged are the urgent problems to be addressed. After locating the vessel, a remote operated vehicle (ROV) would have to dive into the waters to stop the spilling, using robotic arms. Or else all of the 800,000 liters of oil the vessel had been carrying will spill out, a disaster.
By comparison, the Guimaras oil spill disaster — considered the worst such incident — leaked 500,000 liters. A worse disaster was averted when, four months after the Petron-owned tanker MT Solar 1 sank, the Italian-owned Sonsub, a deep-water operations company, retrieved 13,500 tons of crude oil for its hull. The deep-water retrieval, however, cost $6 million. The owners of the MT Princess Empress have not disclosed if they or the insurers have committed to spend whatever it costs to plug the leak in their vessel and siphon off the industrial fuel oil remaining in its hull.
There is an urgency to plug the leak and retrieve the oil as soon as possible, as this is an unknown. The rate at which the oil is spilling would be dependent not just on the size of the hole through which the oil has been spilling out but on the vessel’s depth, since the deeper it is, the stronger the water pressure that pushes out the water. When will Harbor Star start to have its ROV plug the leak? At least a week, the Harbor Star executive said last March 6, and the ROV was located abroad — where, he didn’t say. Our government nor any of its agencies don’t have an ROV to stop further leaks from oil tankers after they sink. That is why I say government is really helpless in addressing the Mindoro oil spill. It also doesn’t even have the new technologies (not even the booms to isolate the oil spill) nor the materials for an oil spill cleanup at sea. All it can do is to manually clean up the oil on the shoreline — and threaten with suits the vessel owners, and demand it quickly undertake the oil-spill cleanup.
Second, there is no central body addressing the oil spill and its cleanup, an agency that puts the prime responsibility of addressing an oil spill and undertaking the cleanup on a specific department or agency.
The Guimaras oil spill happened Aug. 11, 2006. On August 22, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo created an inter-agency task force called Task Force Solar I Oil Spill to oversee both the cleanup of the oil spill and the retrieval of the 1.5 million liters of fuel oil still remaining inside the tanker.
In this current oil spill, a controversial undersecretary, Ariel Nepomoceno, issued last March 3 a memorandum ordering a “task force” to address the Mindoro oil spill, which includes such agencies as the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources, Department of the Interior and Local Government, Department of Social Welfare and Development, and Department of Health.
Jeez, how can an undersecretary order other departments to do something? Does his boss even know about his order appropriating the powers of the Philippine president?
We’re not just helpless and leaderless in addressing the oil spill. President Marcos’ people are plain stupid, or clowns trying to get media mileage out of a disaster.
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