Oriental Mindoro fishers decry inadequate government aid
CALAPAN CITY, Oriental Mindoro, Philippines — Three months after an oil spill, fishers in Oriental Mindoro and other affected communities still reeling from the tragedy continue to demand justice from authorities.
The groups of fishers in this provincial capital questioned the perceived “politicized” distribution of food and financial aid to affected communities, as some residents in coastal areas here had yet to receive support from the government.
This developed as a coalition of environmental advocates decried the lack of sanctions against the companies responsible for the sunken MT Princess Empress that caused a massive oil spill that displaced thousands of fishers in Oriental Mindoro; and damaged marine and coastal resources in the province, up to as far as Caluya Island in Antique and Taytay town in Palawan.
The spill also threatened the resource-rich Verde Island Passage (VIP), a 1.14-million-hectare marine ecosystem located off the coastlines of Batangas, Romblon, Marinduque, Occidental Mindoro, and Oriental Mindoro provinces.
According to Benedict Sibayan, president of Hanay ng mga Yumayabong na Mangingisda (Hayuma) in Calapan City, fishers in his group were wondering why their province was placed under a state of calamity “but until now, we cannot feel the funds allocated for us” nor were they called to a promised meeting by government authorities to discuss their concerns.
Estelito Regala, head of the fishers organization in the city’s village of Ibaba East, said fishers were impoverished and had no more food to eat amid the continuing fishing ban in many municipal waters of Oriental Mindoro, three months since the vessel sank off the province on Feb. 28 while carrying 800,000 liters of industrial fuel. Fisherman Bitol Sibayan from Calapan’s Barangay San Antonio also revealed they were not receiving information on the results of the water analysis conducted by different agencies.
Sibayan added there was also confusion in the implementation of the fishing ban as their local government leader would allow them to continue fishing but the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) would reprimand them when they sail off Mindoro’s waters to catch fish.
“Who should we follow? In the meantime we are suffering (from the fishing ban),” he said.
Hayuma said they have submitted a letter to the provincial board of Oriental Mindoro asking them to explain the inaction to prosecute the polluters and to be transparent in the disbursement of the calamity fund.
Based on the data from the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, Oriental Mindoro sustained an estimated environmental damage of over P7 billion and P3.8 billion in damage to fisheries, including income loss caused by the oil spill.
The government’s failure to take legal action against those responsible for the oil spill was also raised by the members of Protect VIP, a network of groups protecting the marine corridor teeming with biodiversity, who trooped to the House of Representatives on Monday.
“While the government dillydallies in exacting accountability and justice, the damage to Verde Island Passage’s ecosystem and resulting impacts on stakeholders continue to worsen. Companies responsible for this must be punished,” said Fr. Edwin Gariguez, lead convenor of Protect VIP.
He was referring to RDC Reield Marine Services, which owns the sunken vessel, and SL Harbor Bulk Terminal Corp., a subsidiary of San Miguel Corp., which chartered the MT Princess Empress.
Gariguez called on lawmakers to set a precedent in holding the corporations accountable, noting that “despite clear violations and disruption, justice remains elusive.”
“This national disaster has been going on for three long months, but we fear that it is still not being treated as one,” Gariguez added.
Siphoning work starts
The PCG, which has been leading the cleanup operation in spill-affected areas, said work has begun to siphon off the remaining oil from MT Princess Empress, which has now completely sank in the waters off Naujan.
Dynamic Support Vessel Fire Opal arrived on Monday at the Calapan Anchorage Area in Calapan City and then proceeded to the area where MT Princess Empress sank to siphon off the remaining fuel from the tanker and expected to extract 120,000 liters to 240,000 liters of oil, the PCG said on Tuesday.
The siphoning vessel— which was chartered by Malayan Towage and Salvage Corp., one of the two contractors hired by RDC Reield Marine Services to help with the oil spill cleanup—arrived in the Philippines from Singapore last Friday.
The extraction could take 20 days to 30 days depending on the weather and subsea progress, according to Commodore Geronimo Tuvilla, commander of the incident management team in Oriental Mindoro.
Countries like the United States, Japan, South Korea, and France have provided assistance to the oil spill response.
The Presidential Communications Office, on May 27, said that in an update to President Marcos earlier this month, Defense Senior Undersecretary Carlito Galvez Jr. has reported that of the 74.71 kilometers of affected coastline, 62.95 km, or 84.26 percent, had already been cleaned up as of May 10.
Galvez said 6,801 liters of oil waste and 300,603.60 liters of oil-contaminated waste had been collected through the efforts of various agencies and organizations.