Mindoro oil spill: Still a murky affair 2 months later
CITY OF CALAPAN, ORIENTAL MINDORO—Ronald Prado, 48, is still trying to accept the fact that his peaceful morning routine of waking up early to fish in the abundant waters of Oriental Mindoro’s Pola town has stopped for the past two months.
The authorities banned fishing and swimming in the waters of Pola and other coastal towns after the tanker MT Princess Empress spilled much of its cargo of 800,000 liters of industrial fuel oil when it sank off Prado’s quiet and remote village of Misong on Feb. 28.
Within a few days, Pola and eight other Oriental Mindoro towns each declared a state of calamity as the thick oil slick from the sunken tanker reached their shores, and life in the province’s fishing villages and beach resorts came to a virtual standstill.
“We are used to seeing vessels sail across [the sea], but we were never prepared for a disaster like this,” Prado’s wife, Edna, Misong’s village chief, said in a phone interview.
She said her village is receiving relief supplies and assistance such as cash-for-work and outright financial aid.
Some villagers earn P500 weekly for cleaning up the oil sludge on the shores for five hours daily, Edna said.
In the other worst-hit village of Calima, also in Pola, village officials said the cash-for-work program was difficult for the fishers who had to put up with the foul smell of oil and wear personal protective equipment. Some complained of headaches.
The irony of the disaster was not lost on Calima village chief Leodegario Fetizanan.
“We are victims of the oil spill, and yet we have to work for the money that we need because we lost our livelihood,” he told the Inquirer.
Assistance has been “elusive” to people affected by the oil spill far from “ground zero,” according to Nerie Macalalad, a fishing community organizer in Barangay San Antonio in Naujan, a town adjacent to Pola.
“Is there hope that we can ask for help even just to buy eggs and sardines?” she said, adding that only 76 people were selected for the cash-for-work program. “Many others need assistance. We are also affected by the fishing ban.”
Aside from headaches experienced by people on shore cleanup tasks, Edna said several people, including members of her family, complained of respiratory problems and were coughing a lot, possibly due to the oil’s spill impact on air quality.
She said that the foul smell of the oil had reached a hilltop school.
To cope, people just drink water and take cough and other kinds of medicines provided by the Department of Health.
Keen on suing
Nerissa Magbanua, a resident of Barangay Navotas in Calapan, the provincial capital, believes the oil spill is worse than the pandemic.
“We hope that the fishing ban will only be enforced in some areas,” she says.
Other fishers interviewed by the Inquirer said they were confused by pronouncements of contamination because their boats do not show oil stains and the fish look fresh.
“Are experts to be believed more than our many years of experience? Fishers’ families are still eating fish, and there has been no harmful effect so far,” said Francisco Fortu, the chair of Barangay Silonay.
Some people, like 72-year-old Feliciana Alban, are not taking any chances and stopped buying fish.
With hardly any fish sold, the fishing ban has silenced the wet markets as there are no more casual and cheery banters between fish vendors and buyers.
Women like Necy Fortu, 60, of Barangay Maidlang, have been dependent on fish sales for 35 years. Fortu said her earnings had dipped to just enough to buy rice for the family.
Children of fishermen like Grade 11 student Mark Gil Marasigan, 19, laments their losses, saying his family can only pray for miracles.
Pola Mayor Jennifer Cruz, in earlier media interviews, was firmly decided on filing cases against those responsible for the oil spill. She has sought help from the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the National Bureau of Investigation.
Edna said she and other villagers have yet to file damage claims for fear that they would just be abandoned after they do.
“We do not know until when our case will be [heard], but what if the owner of the vessel would just abandon us upon release of our claims?” she said.
Agri losses at P3B
The Office of Civil Defense (OCD) reported that nearly 200,000 people, mostly in Oriental Mindoro, and other parts of Region 4, including Batangas, Marinduque, Romblon and Palawan, and as far as Western Visayas, had been affected by the oil spill.
It estimated that losses to agriculture and fisheries amounted to P3 billion as of Wednesday this week.
The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) is recommending keeping the fishing ban in the municipalities hit by the oil spill in Oriental Mindoro while food safety has yet to be fully established.
About 300,000 liters of fuel oil remain in the sunken vessel and pose a “clear and present danger,” according to Justice Undersecretary Raul Vasquez.
During an interagency meeting for the oil spill response led by the DOJ early this week, the vessel’s insurer, Protection and Indemnity, was given 10 days to report on its plan to siphon off the remaining fuel and the possible retrieval of the sunken tanker.
A siphoning operation usually takes about two months—seven to 10 days for evaluation, seven days to ship the equipment and 21 days for the actual operation—according to the OCD.
Vasquez said that the NBI had “more or less completed the fact-finding data” in filing either a criminal or administrative case against the vessel owner, RDC Reield Marine Services Inc., and other government agencies and private individuals.
He also said that the country could claim as much as $284 million (P15.8 billion) from the International Oil Pollution Compensation (IOPC) Funds.
The BFAR estimated the fisherfolk’s claims could total P500 million while damage to the environment could reach at least P1 billion.
IOPC Funds director Gaute Sivertsen said his delegation just concluded a fact-finding mission.
“Right now, we are collecting claims forms from the victims, to be assessed by the experts, to concentrate on fisherfolk and those who are most in need and then we will offer settlements as soon as possible,” Sivertsen said on Tuesday.
The UK-based IOPC is an intergovernmental organization with more than 120 member states, including the Philippines, that provides compensation for oil pollution damage.
The oil spill has also threatened the Verde Island Passage (VIP), the marine corridor where the South China Sea and Pacific Ocean waters converge.
The VIP is one of the most important marine ecosystems in the world and is said to host about 60 percent of the world’s known shorefish species. The passage provides livelihood and food resources to over 2 million people and serves as a shipping route to international ports in Batangas, Manila, and Subic Bay.
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) estimated that a total of P7 billion worth of marine resources might potentially be exposed to the massive oil spill.
Three major ecosystems—mangrove forests, seagrass beds, and coral reefs—are in the way of the oil spill trajectories across the provinces of Oriental Mindoro, Palawan, and Antique, according to the DENR’s Biodiversity Management Bureau.
Environmental and other civil society groups have been criticizing the government for its supposed “slow” response and “lack of sense of urgency” in the incident, particularly in holding accountable the owners of the sunken tanker.
“The DENR’s claim of closely working with concerned government agencies to resolve the oil spill issue falls short when we consider the glaring question: How long will it take for them to truly hold the owners of MT Princess accountable?” Philippine Movement for Climate Justice said.
Environment Secretary Ma. Antonia Yulo-Loyzaga said that the DENR’s task is to focus on the “forensics” of what happened and the hazards and threats from the oil spill, with the DOJ in charge of filing cases.
Liza Osorio, legal and policy director of Oceana Philippines, in a webinar on Wednesday pointed out that based on Republic Act No. 9483, the liability of oil spill pollution from ships could be measured through the cleanup operations expenses at sea or on shore.
The damages also include preventive measures expenses, consequential loss or loss of earning suffered as a direct result of an incident, and the pure economic loss or loss of earnings sustained by the fisherfolk and tourism sector.
Jordan Fronda, research advocacy campaigner of the Center for Environmental Concerns, earlier said that in Pola, Oriental Mindoro, each family reported an average loss of P7,500 income per month.
According to Fronda, 86.5 percent of the respondents from Pola stated that their earnings were not enough, with 38.5 percent saying they had zero income since the oil spill prompted a fishing ban in their areas.