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Philippines oil disaster requires urgent international attention and aid

Updated On: Aug 22, 2006

The Philippines is struck with the biggest oil spill in its history.

MT Solar I sank on August 11 off Guimaras Island in Iloilo carrying around 2 million litres of bunker fuel. Trapped underwater, the tanker is leaking oil at a rate of 100 litres to 200 litres an hour. Only eight months ago, an oil tanker ran aground off the coasts of Semirara Island in Antique province, spilling more than 300,000 litres of bunker fuel.

Guimaras Governor J.C. Rahman Nava said, as of August 19, the spill had affected 15 square kilometers of coral reefs, over 200 kilometers of coastline, 1,000 hectares of marine reserves, at least two resort islands and 50 hectares of seaweed plantations.

Guimaras Island is described by Nava as a “gem,” with its long stretches of white beaches, clear seawater and rich marine life. And decades of development efforts towards the “improvement of our coastal treasures, from projects in coastal resource management, mangrove  reforestation, seaweed, pearl and shellfish industries… has been destroyed overnight,” Nava told the media.

Nava also reported that three towns had been affected, with an estimated 15 to 20 per cent of the province's population of 155,000 being displaced.

Environmental watchdog Greenpeace is conducting an environmental impact study – an undertaking that will span several months – for the Coast Guard, and has expressed “shock” at the extent of damage, calling on the government to treat the raising of the sunken tanker as a matter of urgency, as the remaining oil in the tanker is a ticking time bomb. Elsewhere, Harold Harder, Coast Guard regional commander, said the slick was slowly being carried by ocean currents into the GuimarasStrait opposite Negros Island.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye revealed in a statement that “the government has already sounded the alarm to foreign governments, including Indonesia, the US andJapan, to help refloat the sunken tanker”. Bunye added that the National Disaster Coordinating Council is “working at all levels to contain the spill, pinpoint accountability, repair the damage, oversee assistance to the affected communities, set up prevention measures and look into long-term policy reforms”.

The Coast Guard and local officials however, have expressed frustration over the time taken to address the problem. “We simply don’t have the equipment to go that deep and inspect the tanker,” Harder said, demonstrating the need for foreign governments to intervene quickly with more effective aid.

MT Solar I is chartered by Petron Corp and a local fisherfolk group (Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamama lakaya ng Pilipinas (Pamala kaya)) is calling for the company to shoulder the financial responsibilities for the cleanup. The national chairman for Pamala kaya, Fernando Hicap, said Petron should set aside P10 billion for the relief and rehabilitation of Guimaras, and suggested for the government to send troops to Guimaras to assist in the cleanup.

Initial investigations conducted by the Philippine Coast Guard and the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) have revealed that MT Solar I had suffered damage while sailing through rough seas and that the vessel should not have continued with the voyage. The owners of the tanker, the Sunshine Maritime Development, and its captain may also face liabilities for the disaster, especially when the ship’s captain, Norberto Aguro, allegedly lacked the required training for oil tanker operations.

Sources:

Oil spill a 'ticking time bomb' (AP, 18 August 2006)

Extent of oil spill damage shocks Greenpeace (AFP/The Manila Times, 21 August 2006)

Philippines appeals for help to clean up oil spill (The Straits Times/Philippine Daily Inquirer/Asia News Network, 21 August 2006)