VIP Under Siege


THE industrial oil from the sunken MT Princess Empress is threatening to affect the Verde Island Passage (VIP), a region described by scientists as the center of marine biodiversity in the world.

According to Conservation International, the VIP is “one of the most productive ecosystems in the world.” From fishing to shipping, the VIP provides food, livelihoods and other benefits to over 2 million people.

Oceana Philippines VP Gloria Estenzo
Ramos: “The oil spill is a disaster of
epic proportions to our biodiversity and
ecosystems, including the iconic Verde Island Passage, as the center of the world’s marine biodiversity, and the seafood-eating Filipino people who are largely dependent on a healthy ocean for sustenance and nutrition.”

It is also home to “charismatic species such as whale sharks, sea turtles, nudibranchs, and an impressive array of corals.”

More importantly, Conservation International declared that the strait is “the backbone of the local economy, thriving upon coastal tourism, fisheries, and as a shipping route to the international ports of Batangas, Manila and Subic Bay.”

Further damage feared

SPEAKING during a recent Senate inquiry following the disastrous Mindoro oil spill, Dr. Cesar L. Villanoy of the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute said it is imperative to stop the seepage from the sunken vessel to prevent further damage to marine and coastal environments.

He said it is also imperative to do it before the amihan season ends, which also signifies the onset of the summer season, which, he also estimates, will start to happen before the Holy Week or a week from now.

Citing trajectory models used by the United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the ocean current and strong wind brought about by amihan is bringing the oil seeping from the sunken vessel to the shores of Naujan and Pola, Oriental Mindoro.

However, he warned that without the wind, the trajectory model indicates it will move to the direction of the VIP in the next few weeks.

Villanoy said the oil that is severely affecting the nine coastal towns of Oriental Mindoro and the islands of Semirara and Antique province is just a fraction of the oil seepage.

He explained that when Bunker C oil is released in the water, 9 percent evaporates, while 70 percent breaks up into smaller spills.  What remains is 22 percent, which is now spreading in various areas.

So far, he said, the spill is going south, mostly to Semirara and Caluya Island and eventually to Cuyo. However, in the next few days, it will reach the Taytay area in Palawan.

“The currents are starting to move to the west—towards the Verde Passage, sometime next week, it will start to affect Verde Island Passage,” says Villanoy.

He added various government agencies working to contain the spill have until, at the latest, Monday, 19th of March, or the oil will start going in the direction of the VIP without the amihan that continues to push oil towards the direction of Nauhan and Pola towns.

“Without the wind, with currents only, the oil will spill towards Calapan and then VIP,” he said.

“We need to contain the seepage before the amihan stops, otherwise, other areas will be affected,” he said.

“We need to stop the seepage from the sunken vessel,” he said.

Government response

DENR Secretary Maria Antonia Yulo-Loyzaga said together with the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and other responders from the local governments, ground remediation is being conducted in affected areas in Oriental Mindoro, which is hardest hit by the oil slick, and Seminara Island and Cuyo, in Antique.

She said the operation is being conducted with the assumption that the seepage will not be stopped, hence, anticipating the worst-case scenario.

Undersecretary Peter Tiangco of the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority, the central mapping agency of the government, has pinpointed the location of the ill-fated vessel some 7.49 nautical miles northeast of Balingawan, Pola, Oriental Mindoro.

The distance of the vessel from the last known position is 264 miles (about 424 kilometers) southeast. The shallowest depth in the area is 389.10 meters or 1,000 feet deep, making it hard for divers to work to stop the seepage, he said.

Meanwhile, a rapid assessment conducted by the Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB) from March 6 to 10, says Assistant Secretary Marcial Amaro, revealed that 10 hectares of mangrove areas in Pola town are now affected by the oil slick.

In the eight other towns of Oriental Mindoro, it was estimated that over 2,000 hectares of coral and 1,600 mangroves and 1,000 hectares of seagrass were also affected.

Secretary Carlito Galvez of the Office of Civil Defense said all in all, a total of 162,000 persons in 118 barangays were affected in Oriental Mindoro and Palawan. A total of 13,588 fisherfolk were also affected by the oil spill.

He said that so far, cleanup operations in various affected areas resulted in the recovery of 4,128 liters of oily water, along with tons of oil-soaked waste or debris, collected. A total of 8,300 families or 32,000 persons in Caluya, Antique, were affected, together with close to 70 fisherfolk.

International ocean conservation advocacy group Oceana said with the testimonies made by national government agencies during the Senate hearing, it is clear that government agencies still have to learn to closely coordinate with one another, including with local authorities and stakeholders for disaster prevention, effective disaster risk communication, and disaster response, as aptly pointed out by Sen. Loren Legarda.

Potential disaster of ‘epic proportions’

DESPITE similar occurrences in the past and present, the country does not have implementation plans for contingencies, such as the oil pollution now ravaging our seas and coastal communities, Oceana Philippines vice president Gloria Estenzo Ramos pointed out.

According to Ramos, despite several disasters hitting the country, largely human-inflicted, Republic Act 10121, or the Philippine Disaster Risk and Reduction Management Act of 2010, still has to be fully implemented and appreciated by key decision-makers.

“The oil spill is a disaster of epic proportions to our biodiversity and ecosystems, including the iconic Verde Island Passage, as the center of the world’s marine biodiversity, and the seafood-eating Filipino people who are largely dependent on a healthy ocean for sustenance and nutrition,” she lamented.

According to Ramos, it was appalling to hear of the lapses in procedure that regulatory agencies have allowed to take place, noting that Sen. Cynthia Villar and further questioning from Senators Risa Hontiveros and Chiz Escudero revealed that MT Princess Empress had no permit to operate.

“So why was it cleared by the Philippine Coast Guard for nine voyages from ports in Bataan and Manila?” she asked.

According to Ramos, an environmental lawyer, the Anti-Red Tape Act must be made applicable to the operations of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) as well—as it should apply to all government agencies—because they don’t seem to be aware of the services and timeline required of them, especially when disasters occur.

In addition, it is high time that we seriously implemented the Renewable Energy Act of 2008, RA 9513. Without a definite push away from fossil fuel and towards renewable energy, we will remain sitting ducks to oil spills, pollution, and climate change impacts and become extremely vulnerable to the dire consequences they bring, Ramos said.

“We cannot be flirting with disasters forever while anybody is free to spill oil in our ocean, without accountability,” she ended.