Oil spill in Oriental Mindoro threatens Verde Island Passage
CITY OF CALAPAN, Oriental Mindoro, Philippines — The continuous leakage of industrial oil from the sunken MT Princess Empress in the waters off Oriental Mindoro province is projected to reach this week the Verde Island Passage (VIP), which is extremely rich in marine biodiversity, according to marine experts.
The University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute (UP MSI) warned that the massive oil spill might yet spread further as changing wind directions caused by the weakening of the “amihan,” or the northeast monsoon, now propelled some of the slick northwards toward the critical biodiversity center.
Speaking to the Inquirer, Dr. Irene Rodriguez of the UP MSI said that while most of the oil would still end up along Naujan town and Pola Bay in Oriental Mindoro, the weakening of the northeast monsoon winds could cause the oil earlier seen to go southwards to northern Palawan, to flow northwards instead to VIP by March 16.
Naujan is 69 kilometers while the town of Pola is 109 km south of the VIP.
The UP MSI, in a report released Sunday, also said that the northward trajectory of the slick would likely affect the coastal areas of the provincial capital Calapan City, the Verde Island at the VIP and some parts of Batangas province.
The VIP is a strait that traverses Batangas and Mindoro. It is known to have the world’s highest concentration of coastal fishes, corals, crustaceans, mollusks, seagrasses, and mangroves.
Rodriguez said this prediction was based on the latest data on wind direction and velocity, as well as satellite images from both the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration and the Philippine Space Agency.
Ideally, Rodriguez said, a weakened amihan should have made containment of the oil spill easier, especially now that the government has identified the exact location of the sunken tanker that caused the spill.
However, “wind direction is very unpredictable,” said Rodriguez. “Unfortunately, this would widen the area that would be affected by the oil slick.”
On March 11, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) said the actual depth of the ship’s location was 389.1 meters and it sank 13.89 km northeast of Balisangan Point, Pola town. It capsized on Feb. 28 while en route to Iloilo province from Limay town in Bataan province due to engine trouble. It was carrying 800,000 liters of industrial oil and was initially reported to have sunk in the waters off Naujan town the following day.
According to the PCG, the oil spill has also spread to Oriental Mindoro’s neighboring provinces of Antique and Palawan.
The UP MSI earlier estimated that the spill would affect 20,000 hectares of coral reefs, 9,900 ha of mangroves, and 6,000 ha of seagrass. Most of these are found in fragile marine ecosystems in Pola in Mindoro, Caluya in Antique, and the Cuyo Group of Islands.
While the oil spill has yet to be contained, it remained a threat to the global center of marine biodiversity located in the VIP, including endemic species only found in the country and species that have yet to be discovered, according to various environmental groups.
The VIP is also home to endangered and threatened species, including the critically endangered Hawksbill sea turtle, whale sharks, manta rays, dugongs, humphead wrasses, giant groupers, and giant clams.
But the UP MSI reiterated that the projection was just a forecast, noting that “the accuracy is difficult to determine.”
It said the projection was based on the “weathering characteristics” of the bunker oil and a seepage rate of 1,000 barrels per day.
Different groups advocating the protection of VIP said the oil spill could also adversely affect tourism revenues and food security in the area.
On Monday, Calapan Mayor Malou Flores Morillo said she had called for an emergency meeting with various concerned government agencies early this month to prepare for the possible spread of the oil spill to the coastline of Calapan Bay.
In an interview, Morillo said the local government had formed a task force to address the impact of the spillage on the environment and the health and livelihood of the residents.
“The construction of improvised oil spill barriers along Calapan Bay using rice straw has started with the help of volunteers,” she said.
According to the environmental group Protect VIP, the latest oil spill to threaten the area should serve as an eye-opener to the government to protect it from future similar incidents.
‘No sufficient measure’
“This is not the first time that a vessel carrying highly polluting fuels leaked its contents into the VIP’s waters,” Fr. Edwin Gariguez, Protect VIP lead convener, said in a statement on March 9. Gariguez noted that “no sufficient measure is in place that could have prevented the latest oil spill from occurring or causing as massive a devastation as it already has.”
He said more heavy industry developments, especially fossil fuel power plants and liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals, are being planned around the VIP area.
According to the group, VIP would be the site of eight proposed gas plants and seven planned LNG terminals.
The priest warned that more power plants and LNG terminals mean more shipping vessels passing through the marine corridor.
“This increases the possibility of a similar situation happening in the future,” Gariguez said.Gariguez demanded that the government provide the VIP with all necessary protection.
“We are in a race against time to stop even worse destruction in the lives of local communities and critical marine and coastal life,” he stressed.
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