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11:00 PM August 11th, 2013

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August 11th, 2013 11:00 PM

The oil spill that stained the waters off Rosario, Cavite, last Thursday could have been worse; as Cavite Gov. Juanito Victor Remulla said the day after the accident, diesel fuel “disperses or dilutes in water and later evaporates faster, unlike bunker fuel that clings to the seabed.” All the same, we cannot credit the startling assertion that Petron Corp., which operates the oil depot where the spill is thought to have originated, made in an early official statement: “There is no danger to the environment and the local community.”

It may be that the country’s largest oil company meant to say there was no long-term danger (although many might argue with that conclusion). But now and in the short term, the costs of a large oil slick in Manila Bay are all too real.

Rosario Mayor Jose Ricafrente said the oil spill had already endangered the livelihood of some 40,000 people dependent on fishing. To help its constituents, the muni-

cipal government is providing those affected with emergency food rations, out of funds that became available after the municipal council declared a state of calamity. (The council made the declaration after local officials found oil sludge in coral reefs.)

Vicente Tomazar, the regional director of the Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, reported that some 300 fishermen had already complained of finding oil sludge in their fish catch. (Local officials have also said that dead fish and other marine life have been found floating on the water’s surface.)

Not least, fishermen interviewed by the Inquirer have said they haven’t put out to sea since the oil spill; those who tried came back with empty nets.

There is even the possibility of water-diluted diesel fuel being sold illegally, thus enlarging the government’s scope of concern. “We have received reports that some people are collecting the fuel washed up toward the shore and selling these diluted products in what is known as ‘bote-bote’ [sale by the bottle],” Energy Secretary Carlos Jericho Petilla said. “These bote-bote products contain seawater and will damage vehicle engines.”

In short, it was a mistake for Petron to issue such a sweeping statement.

To be sure, Petron was not alone; the provincial government of Cavite has also sought to downplay the effects of the oil spill.

“There were no evident signs of a fishkill, no damage to properties, although we are still waiting for the results of marine tests,” Remulla said. He also gave a much lower estimate of the amount of diesel fuel spilled into the water: 90,000 liters, instead of the 500,000 liters in the Coast Guard’s estimate, based on an aerial survey.

Nevertheless: “Whether the diesel was inadvertently discharged by an oil depot in Rosario, Cavite, or by a tanker that had just unloaded fuel at the terminal, sufferers can expect reasonable repayments,” said House Deputy Minority Leader Arnel Ty. Citing the Oil Pollution Compensation Law of 2007, Ty said the party or parties responsible for the oil spill have the legal duty to pay for cleanup operations and compensate victims for any economic losses incurred.

He is right. The only real question is assigning responsibility.

Earlier on Thursday (the day of the accident), the Coast Guard reported that it had discovered a leak from an underwater pipeline. “Based on the diving operation we conducted, there is a continuous leak coming from the Petron pipeline,” Commander Joel Garcia said.

“But right now, I do not want to speculate if it’s either the motor tanker Makisig, which is docked in the area, or Petron who is the one responsible for the oil spill. We want to complete our investigation first.”

But Remulla has already absolved Petron of responsibility. “No, not Petron,” he said, explaining that initial investigation pointed to the oil tanker as the source of the leak. For all we know, his view may be borne out by the facts—but those facts must first be thoroughly vetted.

(It doesn’t help that both Petron and the shipping firm behind Makisig initially resisted the Coast Guard. “They initially refused to give us samples of their product,” Garcia said. He said the Coast Guard will file obstruction of justice charges against the two parties.)

Only a thorough, transparent investigation will separate fact from sludge.

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