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Back to ‘normal’ in Bangkal

“This will make a good case study on remediation and clean-up,” remarks Leonardo Ablaza, a consultant with the First Philippine Industrial Corp. (FPIC), who is overseeing FPIC’s efforts to clean up the West Tower Condominium and surrounding areas in Bangkal, Makati.

If you will recall, residents in the condominium building and in the neighborhood complained in July last year of annoying and irritating fumes emanating mainly from West Tower’s basement. Residents of the condominium and nearby houses complained of headaches, nausea, respiratory ailments, eye irritation and other afflictions. Alarmed, the city government ordered West Tower evacuated.

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After months of diggings and exploration, it was determined that there was a  “plume” of gasoline and other fuel products that had collected in the West Tower basement and in the sewers of the surrounding streets from a leak in the fuel pipeline managed by the FPIC. The pipeline, constructed in the late 1970s, conveys gasoline, diesel, kerosene, jet fuel and other fuel products from oil refineries in Batangas to the fuel depot in Pandacan.

From the time of the discovery of the leak in early November up to now, FPIC has repaired the leak, addressed the health and safety concerns of both West Tower and Bangkal residents, and is now collecting the “fuel product” that accumulated in the basement and surrounding areas, while “remediating” or restoring to its previous condition the ground and water in the affected area.

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“We want to tell the West Tower residents that they can return to their units without fear for their health or safety before the end of the year,” says Anthony Mabasa, president and chief operating officer of FPIC. But before that can happen, legal issues, particularly a class action suit filed by some West Tower residents and a “writ of kalikasan” issued by the Supreme Court, will have to be settled.

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ABLAZA took on his assignment to “clean up” the areas affected by the fuel leak after retiring from Shell where he developed his expertise in environmental clean-ups. He hopes his and FPIC’s efforts in Bangkal will be made into a “case study” to better help both public and private entities create and implement standards to govern rehabilitation efforts after natural and human disasters, of which the Bangkal leak is an example.

Before FPIC was given full and unrestricted access to the West Tower basement last May 6, the homeowners association hired a contractor who began simply pumping out the water in the basement. This worsened the situation, said Ablaza, since it merely spread petroleum-saturated water in the area, leading to more complaints of irritating fumes. “They also were sending in workers under very dangerous conditions, with no masks or protective gear,” comments Ablaza.

After May, though, FPIC has been able to pump and haul out water from the four-level basement and conduct a comprehensive assessment of the conditions in the basement, lobby, hallways and other common areas in the building. Still, Ablaza admits it may take “three to five years” to complete the clean-up.

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ADDRESSING the physical and, more important, psychological, social and economic impact of the leak may take longer.

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Dr. Joselito Gapas, another FPIC consultant with expertise in environmental and occupational health, takes charge of monitoring the health of affected residents and addressing whatever anxieties or concerns they may still harbor. Aside from setting up more than 30 air quality monitoring “testing points,” FPIC has also put up a community clinic that offers free health services to Bangkal residents and complements the local health unit.

While he admits faint petroleum odor can still be detected in the area, Gapas says that after months of air quality monitoring, the amount of gas fumes in the air has been determined to be “not sufficient to present a risk to the health of residents.” In fact, he says with a smile, the amount of gas fumes from vehicles plying the nearby South Superhighway may account for a greater risk to residents’ health.

All the same, FPIC personnel and the Makati City government have been conducting community meetings or pulungan to update the residents and listen to whatever complaints they still have.

Still, it may take a bit longer for residents to completely forget and “forgive” the months of sleepless nights, untold anxiety and depression that the leak had generated. Including a New Year’s celebration devoid of fireworks revelry for fear that the pyrotechnics could set off explosions in the area still saturated by gas fumes. Which, by the way, the FPIC folk deem “overkill.”

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MABASA himself admits the lasting impact of those days when authorities, including FPIC, had yet to find the source of the alarming fumes and the fuel seeping into the West Tower basement. (In all, some nine thousand drums or 1.8 million liters of fuel have been determined to have leaked from the pipeline, which FPIC explains is still within the allowable level of loss. The pipeline, before it was shut down, transported some 10 million liters of fuel a day.)

The company is still engaged in negotiations with disgruntled West Tower residents who are demanding an estimated P2 billion in damages, to cover the value of their units, relocation expenses, and mental and emotional damage. In answer, FPIC is offering a package to cover their relocation and living expenses until the end of year, repair and rehabilitation of the four basement levels, including reinforcement of the retaining wall.

About 20 West Tower residents have already accepted FPIC’s offer, says Mabasa, taking advantage of the chance to return and live in West Tower once more and resume a life rudely interrupted by a fuel leak.

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TAGS: columns, Makati City, oil pipe leak, opinion, west tower condo
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