Slip and slide on oil spill
A remotely operated vehicle (ROV) on Tuesday finally located the underwater grave of the MT Princess Empress, almost a month after the ship containing 800,000 liters of industrial oil sunk off Mindoro, spilling on its waters the toxic cargo that has spread as far as Palawan, Batangas, and Antique.
Hopefully, it won’t take as long to surface the accountability of several government regulatory agencies whose job it is to prevent this mishap that has a long-term impact on the delicate marine life in the area, the health of residents in coastal towns, the livelihood of fisherfolk, the tourism prospects of affected provinces, and their environmental sustainability.
The recent Senate hearing on the oil spill led to finger-pointing between the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina), and showed how carelessly the two agencies have implemented their respective mandate all these years. Such complacency also indicates how little we’ve learned from similar incidents, the worst being the Guimaras oil spill in 2006.
That incident saw the sunken oil tanker spilling more than 2.1 million liters of bunker fuel, which affected 1,500 hectares of the local ecosystem. It prompted the government to review and revise the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan promulgated in 2008, which identifies the PCG as the lead agency in the response, clean-up, and other contingency measures, and the Marine Environmental Protection Command as the point of contact. On top of that, Republic Act No. 9483 was enacted in 2007 to establish the oil pollution management fund in anticipation of similar incidents. But 16 years since and the law still lacks implementing rules and regulations. Could this partly explain the headless chicken response of the government to the Mindoro mishap, with the people frantically stepping in with improvised oil spill booms?
With the Senate hearing raising doubts about the competence and integrity of the government’s regulatory agencies, the Department of Justice has subpoenaed the PCG, Marina, and the Philippine Ports Authority of Mindoro to attend a case buildup meeting on the incident. Still, shouldn’t that have taken place the first week of the oil spill?
Marine experts have also asked why commercial vessels loaded with toxic cargo have been allowed to pass through the Verde Island Passage (VIP), which is considered the center of marine biodiversity in the world. Aside from fast-tracking Senate Bill No. 518 filed last year, seeking to declare VIP a protected area under the National Integrated Protected Areas System Act of 1992, given the threats to its biodiversity, the government should ban oil tankers from this passage and demand strict compliance to environmental safeguards among commercial vessels using this route.
And while the accountability of the company that contracted the MT Princess Empress remains a gray area, shouldn’t it take responsibility for failing to check the seaworthiness of the vessel carrying such a toxic load? It may not be legally liable according to current laws, but shouldn’t the contractor exercise its corporate sense of responsibility to recompense people adversely affected by its lack of due diligence?
Sen. Risa Hontiveros has meanwhile called out PCG and Marina officials for their “undeniable negligence and nonfeasance” in allowing the vessel, described as “rebuilt scrap,” to operate despite its less than seaworthy condition and, reportedly, its lack of permit to operate. Amid the shipowner, RDC Reield Marine Services’ claims about its amended certificate of public convenience, the conflicting statements of the PCG and Marina, and allegations of forged signatures on the permit to sail, what emerge are the appalling lack of coordination among government offices tasked to oversee navigational safety, their confusing accreditation process, and the apparent duplication of functions that may allow unscrupulous shipowners to play off one regulatory agency against another. Did the Marina and the PCG “look the other way,” as one senator hinted? And for what consideration?
Given the agencies’ possible complicity with the offending vessel’s owner, the Senate committee on environment, natural resources, and climate change should not only look into the administrative liabilities of both the PCG and Marina officers but ensure that the officers involved would be held to account.
And while local officials in the affected towns—knowing how a court case could drag on for years—are looking at a negotiated settlement with the shipowner, our legislators might want to look into plugging the gaps in the country’s laws that only extract fines from companies that cause environmental nightmares. On top of possible jail time for company officials, why not require erring companies to pay damages equal to the cumulative cost of the long-term effects of their negligence, especially since they’re bound to collect hefty insurance claims?
The extent of the damage in the Mindoro oil spill has yet to be fully determined so that just compensation can be negotiated, but nothing stops the government from revisiting and updating maritime regulations and tightening current safety mechanisms, to at least ensure that such preventable mishaps never happen again.
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