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The true story of the West Tower disaster

/ 09:35 PM August 11, 2011

Several unit owners of the abandoned West Tower condominium in Bangkal, Makati, visited me last week to explain what happened and is still happening to the condominium, to the unit owners, and to the area around the building. They brought photographs and maps to make their story clearer and more credible. After they were through, I realized that the public knows very little of the situation there, that media have been remiss in reporting what is happening there, that the press releases appearing in media are misleading, and that the national government, particularly the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and the Makati City government, are remiss in protecting the environment and helping Bangkal’s residents.

For example, the impression given in the media is that the leaks have been stopped, that the spilled fuel has been removed, and that West Tower is now habitable. All wrong.

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The four-story parking basement still fills up with water and spilled fuel (a mixture of gasoline, diesel and kerosene); First Philippine Industrial Corp. (FPIC) continues to pump out this mixture and pumps in air to remove the petroleum stench, and the tower is still uninhabitable. FPIC now wants the unit owners and lease holders to move back in, but they refuse. They can’t stand the stench. And the parking basement is unusable.

Experts estimate it would take three to five years to remove the free-floating fuel from the basement, and another five to 10 years to bring back the soil and groundwater to their original condition.

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It seems that the 40-year-old FPIC pipes, through which fuel flows from the Batangas refineries to the Pandacan fuel depot, have been slowly leaking for years. So now the ground in and around Bangkal is saturated with petroleum. Because of gravity, water and spilled fuel flow into the West Tower basement, the lowest point in the area. The basement, therefore, serves as the catch basin for all of Bangkal. No matter how much of the mixture is pumped out, more of it comes in.

To familiarize himself with the case, Judge Eugene Paras of the Makati regional trial court made an ocular inspection of the tower last July 4. He was driven back by the gas fumes.

FPIC continues to issue glowing reports about its repair work (it calls it “remediation”) when it has not addressed the key issue: the structural integrity of the building. The unit owners say FPIC claims its remediation process is ongoing and is ahead of schedule when, in fact, it has not yet been started.

The ongoing FPIC activities, say the unit owners, have been limited to the recovery of fuel floating on top of the water. True remediation, they said, begins only after all the petroleum has been extracted from the soil. Not even 30 percent of the estimated 1.8 million to 3 million liters of fuel soaking the soil in Bangkal has been extracted since November 2010, they added.

FPIC activities are focused on cosmetics and announcing its accomplishments, such as cleaning West Tower’s swimming pool, jacuzzi and common areas, planting greenery, etc. FPIC has announced that West Tower is free of odor and safe to live in. The unit owners dared FPIC officials and employees to live in West Tower for six months, for free. The latter declined.

FPIC has proposed to plug West Tower’s sump pit to prevent the entry of fuel-contaminated water from the water table around the building. It also proposed to plug latent cracks in some sections of the basement wall where the fuel had broken the waterproofing of the perimeter wall. The purpose is to prevent fuel-contaminated water from entering the building. This, in turn, will remove the odor of gasoline fumes from the building. Without the gas fumes, FPIC can then claim the building is habitable and the residents can move in, while remediation of the area in and around West Tower is ongoing. And should residents refuse to return to West Tower, FPIC can accuse them of being uncooperative and stubborn.

FPIC has already called West Tower unit owners “extortionists” because they have filed a damage suit against it. Originally, the owners asked FPIC to either buy the land and building for cash, or swap it with another property where the unit owners can transfer. Per appraisal report dated October 2009, the cost would be P800 million.

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In return, FPIC offered a relocation package, with quit claim:

* P6,300 per square meter for unit owners who are lessors, and P10,800 per sq m for unit owners who live in West Tower.

But the market values in Makati for the same size, facilities and amenities as the West Tower units range from P80,000 to P100,000 per sq m. With what FPIC is offering, they won’t find similar accommodations anywhere, the unit owners said.

No insurance company now accepts the building for insurance coverage, no bank extends a loan on any West Tower unit, no appraisal company can give an accurate value of the condominium until the fuel contamination is resolved.

When negotiations with FPIC failed, the West Tower residents filed a P2-billion suit at the Makati RTC—half for the cost of the lot and building, and half for actual expenses, moral and exemplary damages, attorney’s fees, and for a medical fund to pay for the future medical expenses of residents due to hydrocarbon diseases.

FPIC wants the unit owners to pay a P40-million filing fee. The owners countered that it is not a civil case but an environmental case. If it is an environmental case, no filing fee is required; but if it is a civil case, the complainants must pay the filing fee of P40 million. Decision on whether it is one or the other will be issued by the court this week.

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TAGS: DENR, featured columns, Government, oil pipeline leak, opinion, remediation, West Tower condominium
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