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MANILA, Philippines — Ahead of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s State of the Nation Address (SONA), a number of civic groups expressed concern that the completion of the oil extraction from the sunken MT Princess Empress would be touted as an accomplishment by the chief executive.
More than a month has passed since the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) announced that the oil from the tanker had already been completely extracted.
“[Sa] pagbisita natin two to three days ago, mayroon pang malalaking tar balls,” Pola, Oriental Mindoro Mayor Jennifer Cruz, who joined the press conference of civil society groups, said on Wednesday, July 19. (When we visited two to three days ago, there were still huge tarballs.)
Salvors extracted 64,000 liters of oil from the vessel, which was around 400 meters deep in waters off Naujan. MT Princess Empress left the private port SL Harbor Bulk Terminal in Limay, Bataan on February 28 with around 800,000 liters of industrial fuel oil bound for Iloilo. Assuming the oil cargo was exactly 800,000 liters, this means that 736,000 liters (800,000 minus 64,000 siphoned) of black oil spilled into the environment.
Besides the cleanup, there is still the issue of reparation. When Rappler visited last June, Pola residents and fisherfolk said they were still awaiting compensation from the insurer.
“There is still a lot to clean up,” Cruz added in a mix of Filipino and English. “[Even] If traces of oil are removed from the shoreline but there is still no compensation for affected communities, then the fight is still not over.”
Civic leaders said the good news of completed oil siphoning operations feels “hollow” because of the lack of accountability from the ship owner, RDC Reield Marine Services, which has been sued by the National Bureau of Investigation and Cruz.
“We are concerned that this will easily be considered a victory for the Marcos administration’s first environmental crisis as we approach SONA,” said Fr. Edwin Gariguez, lead convenor of coalition Protect VIP.
“But it is a hollow victory, as no one is held accountable and the government remains quiet about what it plans to do to prevent similar incidents in the future,” Gariguez added.
A fishing ban continues to beset Pola, Oriental Mindoro, considered the ground zero of the disaster. In other oil spill-hit areas, the ban has already been lifted, but not without upsetting fisherfolk’s lives.
The fishing ban, recommended by the government while the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources tests water quality and level of oil contamination, has stripped fisherfolk of their livelihood.
Amid livelihood loss, affected communities relied on the government’s cash-for-work program and food and cash aid.
Ivan Andres, head of the Oceans, Coastal Communities, and Climate program of the Center for Energy, Ecology, and Development (CEED), said the negative impact of the oil spill on fisherfolk continues to be felt despite the lifting of the ban in most places affected by the disaster.
“Speaking with fisherfolk in Calapan just this week, we heard laments that there is less fish catch upon the lifting of their fishing ban has been lifted – and this is an experience observed in oil spills in the past. Even if the tanker is now empty, leaked oil has lingering impacts on water quality, threatening fragile ecosystems in the VIP [Verde Island Passage],” Andres said.
The Verde Island Passage is a body of water between the provinces of Batangas, Mindoro island, and Marinduque. Dubbed the “Amazon of the oceans,” it is a global center of marine shorefish biodiversity.
Aside from the social cost of the oil spill, groups are concerned over the long-term impact of the disaster to the environment.
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources has estimated that environmental damage may reach P7 billion.
More tests to verify the effect of oil spill on local ecosystems should be conducted before the government can get the extent and exact cost of the damage, environmental scientist Hernando Bacosa told Rappler early in July.
“Histories of oil spill impacts remain beyond what the eyes can see,” said Gariguez.
“And what we are hearing from the government are attempts at shoving this disaster under the rug, with no clarity on how solutions will be met for existing and long-term impacts.”