Oil-spill boat had no permit to sail

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THE effort to claim $1-billion indemnity from insurance taken out by the owners of the sunken boat spilling oil in Mindoro Oriental faces an uphill climb because of the company’s regulatory lapses, dashing hopes that thousands of people impacted by the massive leak could promptly get financial help for the damage and lost livelihood.

Sen. Cynthia Villar stressed this at Tuesday’s Senate hearing on the massive oil spill and urged the government to step in and source funds to cover for the damage mitigation and cleanup for what has been called the country’s worst ecological disaster.

Presiding over the Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Climate Change, Villar also lined up environment protection measures filed by senators, including six bills she herself endorsed for plenary action, declaring ecologically vital areas as protected areas (PAs) under the National Integrated Protected Areas Systems (NIPAS).

Villar expressed dismay over the extent of damage caused by the oil spill from tanker MT Princess

Empress that sank off Naujan, Oriental Mindoro on February 28, noting that the oil spill “is emerging to have more extensive effects,” compared to the 2006 Guimaras oil spill—considered then as the worst in the country’s history.

Citing the National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council Situation Report dated March 12, 2023, Villar said the oil spill in the province affected 21,691 families in 117 barangays of Region 4-B; 7,616 families in four barangays of Region 6; a total of 13 marine protected areas and 61 tourist attractions; and an estimate of 8 kilometers of coastline in Caluya, Antique.

“It is an understatement to say that this is a distressing news for the country. For one, this oil spill incident is a setback on our ongoing efforts to strengthen our ecosystem and mend our fragile biodiversity while we are undergoing the United Nations Decade of Ecosystem Restoration from 2021 to 2030.  You see, the Philippines is among the world’s biodiversity hotspots or those areas experiencing high rates of habitat and biodiversity loss,” Villar pointed out.

Also at Tuesday’s hearing, Senator Francis Tolentino questioned the seaworthiness of the M/T Princess Empress.

“We want to know how old is the M/T Princess Empress, how long has it been in business, and if it has been inspected for seaworthiness; inspection ius crucial,” Tolentino said, speaking mostly in Filipino.

The sea accident continues to affect not only the livelihood of fisherfolk, but also the marine biodiversity and tourism as it heads towards the famous beaches of Coron in Palawan and in Boracay Island.

Representatives from the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) bared to the Senate panel that RDC Reield Marine Services (RDC)—the owner of M/T Princess Empress—has yet to secure an amendment of its certificate of public convenience (CPC) for the ill-fated vessel; thus it should not have been allowed to sail in the first place.

MARINA’S revelation thus confirmed information raised by Villar at the start of the hearing, when she warned against fanning undue expectations of oil spill victims who may think the vessel owner can easily use its insurance claim to cover its liabilities to them.

Tolentino, who earlier spurred the Senate environment panel to demand an in-depth assessment of the huge damage brought by the Mindoro oil spill incident following his privilege speech last week, also urged authorities and M/T Princess Empress’s owner to hasten the distribution of compensation for those affected by it.

Compensation Act

Tolentino suggested that authorities use existing funds cited in Republic Act No. 9483 or the Oil Pollution Compensation Act, since there is a specific provision there in which for every shipment of oil tanker, 10 centavos per liter is allotted specifically for compensation fund.

“In the law—in Section 1 of the IRR [Implementing Rules and Regulations] sa Republic Act 9483—for every delivery of an oil tanker, 10 centavos per liter of every delivery should go to the compensation fund. These  funds are administered by the Maritime Industry Authority [MARINA],” said Tolentino.

According to Tolentino, MARINA should lay down the guidelines on how the said compensation fund provided under the law will be utilized as soon as possible to fast-track its distribution to affected residents and local government units (LGUs) not only in Mindoro Oriental, but also in other areas like in Coron, Palawan and in some provinces in the Western Visayas region.

Tolentino said it’s now a race against time and authorities should not wait for the compensation and assistance coming from RDC Reield Marine Services (RDC), owner of the ill-fated boat. Tolentino also noted that the said company should clarify the status of its insurance claim since they are the one primary responsible for damaging the country’s center of marine biodiversity.

Authorities at present continue to race against time in containing the 800,000-liter that spilled from the oil tanker after it sank.

Sen. Raffy T. Tulfo called for a review of the provisions of Republic Act 9483 which, he said, tends to shield charterers from oil spill liabilities. Tulfo pointed out during the hearing that RA 9483 exempts charterers from claims for compensation and damages. “A charterer should also have a liability. This also concerns the capability of the coast guard to contain oil spills,” Tulfo said.

Sen. Risa Hontiveros stressed the importance of  collective and immediate action to clean up and mitigate the effects of the oil spill on the lives of many Filipinos, the environment and to tcountry.

Hontiveros said the oil spill has placed one of the richest biodiversity sites in the world and the livelihood of many of Filipinos  living in the affected areas at risk. The Verde Island Passage is known as the center  of marine shorefish biodiversity in the world. “The threat that this brings to the Verde Island Passage will impact not only the people living in Mindoro and nearby provinces…but as the area with the highest concentration of coral reefs, fishes and mangroves, it will also negatively affect the country’s food supply,” Hontiveros said.

President Pro Tempore Loren Legarda asked government agencies to clarify their roles in the oil spill, citing the need for a concerted action for containing, removing, and mitigating the damage, as well as addressing its impacts on health and livelihood. “There should be one head,” Legarda said, as she called for a “coherent, comprehensive response” to the oil spill. “We cannot have different agencies—while well-meaning, well-funded, have the resources—[working] without a head,” she pointed out. She said that under Republic Act No. 10121, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) was tasked to provide for a framework and coordinate efforts for such disasters. Legarda recommended that an official be designated to lead the agencies in the oil spill response.

Sen. Francis “Chiz” Escudero grilled Philippine Coast Guard and officials of the oil tanker over the incident, pointing out the failure of the PCG to check the ship’s certificate of public convenience (CPC).

In questioning Fritzee Tee, vice president of RDC Reield Marine Services Inc. which owns MT Princess Empress, Escudero found out that the vessel was newly acquired and has sailed nine times already even though it technically had no permit to operate yet. Tee said they applied for an amended CPC in November 2022. “So nine times from whatever area it left port, the Coast Guard was supposed to inspect it and the Coast Guard saw that there was no amended CPC yet covering this vessel. [That means this is already the]ninth oversight on the part of Coast Guard,” Escudero said.

CPC is a license to operate or an authorization issued for the operation of public services for which no franchise, either municipal or legislative, is required by law such as a common carrier. Escudero also learned that the ship was not issued an amended CPC because the owner did not apply for one.

Image credits: Voltaire F. Domingo/Senate PRIB