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MANILA, Philippines – Environmental damage caused by the oil spill from the sunken MT Princess Empress could reach P7 billion, the country’s environment chief said on Thursday, April 27.
In her first one-on-one television interview since she assumed office in July 2022, Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Secretary Antonia Yulo-Loyzaga told the ABS-CBN News Channel that the “possible exposure” of P7 billion comes from damage to the country’s coral reefs, mangroves, seagrass, and other marine resources.
She said her department is in the process of getting scientific evidence that will substantiate the damage to the environment.
“For the DENR, we’ve actually calculated what could be exposed by way of coral reefs, seagrass, mangroves, and fisheries. And the possible exposure for us is [worth] about P7 billion,” she said.
She said this is higher than the damage to loss of livelihood, as over 24,000 fisherfolk, mostly in Oriental Mindoro, are unable to fish due to oil contamination. Damage to agriculture and fisheries, as of April 26, has reached P3.8 billion, according to a situational report from the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council.
“What we have to do now is to verify on the ground how much of these reefs have been touched by the oil, how many of the mangroves have been destroyed, how much of the seagrasses has been affected,” she said.
She said the DENR will be submitting its evidence to the Department of Justice, which is the lead agency on the filing of complaints against the shipowner, RDC Reield Marine Services, and other parties that will be sued. This evidence may also be used for the writ of kalikasan (nature) being prepared by the justice department for filing with the Supreme Court that will compel the shipowner and other entities to clean up the affected areas.
The International Oil Pollution Compensation Funds has informed the government that only $284 million in insurance coverage, not $1 billion as earlier claimed by the owner of MT Princess Empress, will be available for compensation for those affected by the oil spill in Mindoro. The IOPC is an international organization that works with insurers and member states faced with oil spills.
Verde Island Passage
Loyzaga also warned that based on projections of the UP Marine Science Institute, using maps provided by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the wind and the current were moving the oil spill toward the Verde Island in Batangas. Traces of the industrial fuel oil (IFO) have already been found on that island and later cleaned up by the Philippine Coast Guard and other workers.
Verde Island is part of the Verde Island Passage (VIP), a body of water between Batangas, Mindoro island and Marinduque that is a global center for marine shorefish biodiversity. (READ: FAST FACTS: Verde Island Passage, the ‘Amazon of the oceans’)
Loyzaga said she has had discussions with the concerned governors on the need for a law that would protect this body of water.
Currently, she said the VIP is just a Marine Protected Area, and the local government units in the VIP want it to be a “legislated protected area.”
Loyzaga said she had also met with shipowners on the need to protect the VIP, and that policy reforms meant to prevent more oil spills would be recommended. Civil society groups and environmental experts have urged the government to ban oil tankers from using the VIP.
She said oil continues to leak from the Princess Empress but that it has been “significantly” plugged by two remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), one from Japan and another from the US Navy.
She said they still see oil as far as Caluya, Antique, in Western Visayas.
Loyzaga gave credit to the towns that made their own spill booms using local materials, such as coconut husks, in a bid to prevented the black oil from reaching shorelines.
The MT Princess Empress left the private port SL Harbor Terminal in Limay, Bataan, early morning on February 28, with around 900,000 liters of IFO. It had engine trouble, encountered strong winds and rough seas, and sank off Naujan, Oriental Mindoro, later that day. It spilled most of the black oil it was carrying in the succeeding days.
The environment chief also belied critics who claimed she had not been active nor seen on the ground in the oil spill-affected areas, including allegedly not being with President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. during his visit to Oriental Mindoro on April 15.
Loyzaga said she was with the President during that visit, and that she and her department were the first to act on the disaster.
She said she informed the President of the need to provide calamity assistance as early as March 3, since they had already projected that there would be fishing and diving bans.
Since the Philippines has no ROV, she asked the government’s mapping agency, the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority (NAMRIA), which is under her department, to immediately deploy its ship, the BRP Hydrographer Ventura, to try to find the sunken vessel. The ship reached Oriental Mindoro on March 5, and reported on the likely location of the ship.
Loyzaga also said she had been advised to be more active in mass media, including on social media, given the criticisms on not being seen in public.
Following these criticisms, the DENR uploaded a page on its website dealing with the Mindoro oil spill: MT Princess Oil Spill Updates – Rappler.com