An injustice on top of another

An injustice on top of another

/ 04:15 AM March 02, 2024

Finally, almost a year since oil tanker MT Princess Empress sank on Feb. 28, 2023 off Oriental Mindoro with 800,000 liters of industrial fuel, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has recommended the filing of criminal charges against some individuals over the disaster.

But the DOJ’s Feb. 14 announcement of charges came off as paltry and perfunctory compared to the catastrophic damage caused by the massive oil spill to the environment and the untold sufferings of fisherfolk and residents across three regions.

Recommended for indictment are the owners and corporate officers of RDC Reield Marine Services Inc., the shipping company that owns MT Princess Empress; the tanker’s two crew members; one personnel of the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina), and a private individual, all of whose names have not yet been released.


The charges? Falsification of documents. The DOJ panel of prosecutors found “irregularities in certain documents,” including faked construction certificate and affidavit of ownership submitted by the shipping company, which it used to flout regulations.


Slap on the wrist

Initial complaints based on findings by the National Bureau of Investigation’s Environmental Crime Division and the local government of Pola, Oriental Mindoro that bore the brunt of the oil spill, included more respondents, among them 19 personnel of the Philippine Coast Guard who allowed the tanker to sail despite violations of shipping regulations.

Justice Assistant Secretary Jose Dominic Clavano had earlier accused the shipping company and Marina officials of conspiring to have the tanker registered using false documents, including a spurious certificate of public convenience. Surprisingly, the DOJ prosecutors found no probable cause to indict the other respondents.

Weighed against the gravity of the disaster, the charges of falsification of public documents against a few culprits fall extremely short of public expectations of justice. The crime is punishable with a few years in jail, but with no certainty of conviction or speedy resolution, the charges are tantamount to a slap on the wrist, given the havoc arising from the respondents’ criminal acts.

State of calamity

Consider the horrific numbers: According to the Feb. 26 report of the Center for Energy, Ecology, and Development, the oil spill caused P41.2 billion worth of environmental and socioeconomic losses.

Nine towns in Oriental Mindoro were placed under a state of calamity, with over 172,000 people from Mimaropa (Mindoro, Marinduque, Romblon, and Palawan), Calabarzon (Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal, Quezon), and the Western Visayas regions affected as of March 2023. Fisherfolk suffered losses of at least P441.25 million in just 22 days after the tanker sank, with the Department of Social Welfare and Development spending P217 million in food packs, relief goods, and in financial aid to 34,553 families as of April last year.

Verde Island Passage

Yet the impact of the oil spill cannot be fully quantified, and continues to pose threats to the fragile ecosystem, including the Verde Island Passage, known as the “center of the center of marine shorefish biodiversity” for being home to countless marine species.


The DOJ must acknowledge the huge ecological damage and the continuing threat from the incident and pursue the filing of heavier charges against those responsible for this catastrophe. Clavano has said that the environmental case is “slightly complicated,” but that the gathering of evidence and building up of the case is in progress. As it should be.

This is where the government should bring the full force of the law on public officials and private companies who should be held accountable for the accident and the resulting damage to the environment.

Lost income

The government should also pressure the shipowner to complete the compensation for affected fisherfolk and residents at the soonest possible time. As of February this year, only 627 of more than 4,000 claimants from Pola have received initial compensation, according to Pola fisherman Aldrin Villanueva. So far, he has received only P14,000 of the P54,000 compensation for lost income during the peak fishing season following the oil spill.

This is an injustice on top of another, which the government should mitigate. The Protect Verde Island Passage group has called out San Miguel Corp. (SMC), whose subsidiary, SL Harbor Bulk Terminal Corp., chartered the ill-fated tanker, to compensate those affected by the oil spill. At the very least, the government should compel SMC to retrieve the tanker to prevent the remaining fuel from spilling into the sea.

READ: Group estimates 2023 Mindoro oil spill damage at P41.2B

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Philippine officials who loudly decry China’s illegal incursions and damage to the marine environment in the West Philippine Sea must demonstrate equal zeal in bringing to justice its own citizens and officials wreaking havoc on the environment, through sheer negligence and shameless corruption. They deserve to be prosecuted and penalized to the fullest extent of the law.

TAGS: Mindoro, oil, oil spill, Oriental Mindoro

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