Green groups outraged amid Senate revelation sunken ship had no gov’t permit
LUCENA CITY, Quezon, Philippines — An environmentalist group was enraged over the revelation that MT Princess Empress, which is feared to spill up to 800,000 liters of industrial-grade oil into the sea, did not have the required government permit to sail out to sea.
“We are outraged by this revelation,” Fr. Edwin Gariguez, lead convener of Protect the Verde Island Passage (VIP), said in a statement Wednesday.
During a Senate inquiry into the oil spill on Tuesday, the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) revealed that shipowner RDC Reield Marine Services (RDC) was still in the process of updating its certificate of public convenience (CPC) to include MT Princess Empress but had already been allowing the oil tanker to sail and transport oil. It was, in fact, the ninth trip of the 2022-built tanker when it sank in the waters of Oriental Mindoro on Feb. 28 and caused a massive oil spill.
But the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), which was under fire for not being able to immediately present or mention the CPC during the inquiry, on Tuesday night posted on its social media page a copy of the CPC issued by the Marina to MT Princess Empress in November 2022, hours after a Senate inquiry into the oil spill concluded that the tanker had no permit to sail. The CPC is an authorization issued by Marina to ships for commercial or public use.
The RDC earlier said it had applied for a CPC amendment to include the vessel in its fleet in November last year and submitted the additional requirements a month later.
PCG spokesperson Rear Adm. Armand Balilo told reporters on Wednesday that the CPC was belatedly forwarded to their officials who attended the hearing.
He said they applied a presumption of regularity when the documents were submitted to them by the MT Princess Empress.
“We’ll check if the signatures are valid. Is this recognized by Marina? That has to be explained,” he said.
“We accepted the documents submitted to us on a presumption that these have no problems, so if it would be found out later that these are spurious, they would be held liable,” he added.
Balilo said the PCG would also investigate its boarding team whether the tanker was inspected properly before it headed out to sea. Gariguez said the ship’s violation all the more points to the accountabilities of its owner, RDC, and its charterer, the San Miguel Corp. (SMC).
“We assert that any insurance claims challenges they may face due to this in no way excuse them from paying up,” Gariguez stressed.
Pay cash bond
Gariguez noted that SL Harbor Bulk Terminal Corp., an SMC Shipping and Lighterage subsidiary, chartered RDC to ship the 800,000 liters of industrial oil carried by MT Princess Empress and, as “charterer, it is generally considered as the spiller and owner of the vessel involved. It has no business denying its role in bringing about this environmental nightmare.”
Gerry Arances, executive director of the think-tank Center for Energy, Ecology and Development and co-convener of Protect VIP, also believed SMC must pay a cash bond of at least P70 million to P50 million for cleanup and containment and another P20 million for damages and payment to affected communities, citing the PCG Memorandum Circular No. 01-2005 that provided for the “Revised Rules on Prevention, Containment, Abatement and Control of Oil Marine Pollution.”
The oil spill has so far affected more than 108,000 people in 118 villages in the provinces of Oriental Mindoro and Palawan, according to the Office of Civil Defense (OCD).
Diego Agustin Mariano, OCD Joint Information Center chief, said during the Laging Handa forum on Wednesday that some 20,000 families have received assistance through food packs and cash-for-work programs provided by the Departments of Social Welfare and Development and of Environment and Natural Resources.
The more than 120 people who were injured or fallen ill due to the oil spill were given medical attention by health authorities, he added.
All those involved in the cleanup were given “proper equipment” and supplies, Mariano added, but he admitted that the oil spill booms that were initially laid down to prevent the oil slick from reaching the shorelines were not enough, prompting the affected local governments to use materials such as rice straw and coconut husks to make oil spill booms for the PCG to utilize.Red tape
The spill was projected to spread farther into the waters of Batangas and VIP, a body of water between Mindoro Island and Batangas that has been recognized as the “center of global shorefish biodiversity” due to the high densities of marine resources in the area.
Lawyer Gloria Estenzo Ramos, vice president for the Philippines of the international ocean conservation group Oceana, noted during the Senate hearing that it was “appalling to hear of the lapses in the procedure [that] regulatory agencies have allowed to take place.”
She also said Republic Act No. 9485 (Anti-Red Tape Act) should be applied in the dealings within the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council and other concerned government agencies to speed up their response time. Meanwhile, Deputy House Speaker Ralph Recto on Wednesday advised the government to use its annual collections of over P380 billion from crude oil and petroleum products to fund the cleanup of the oil spill and indemnify the affected coastal residents.
“A drop of the oil tax should be used to clean up the spill from the sunken tanker,” said Recto in a statement.
Recto pointed out that a day’s worth of oil tax collections of P1 billion would suffice to jump start “abatement and alleviation” efforts in areas hit by the ecological disaster, reminding the government that it should spend more from its huge revenues in oil and fuel products in containing the oil spill.