Oriental Mindoro oil spill

Oil siphoning to start in June, but is there ‘black oil’ still left in Princess Empress?

Isagani de Castro Jr.

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Oil siphoning to start in June, but is there ‘black oil’ still left in Princess Empress?

FOUND. The MT Empress Princess found in the waters of Naujan, Oriental Mindoro, on March 21, 2023.

Philippine Coast Guard

A new remotely operated vehicle will be deployed to the sunken MT Princess Empress by the first week of June, reports Defense OIC Carlito Galvez Jr.

MANILA, Philippine – The operation to siphon the remaining oil from MT Princess Empress was scheduled to begin in the first week of June, or more than three months after the oil tanker sank, Malacañang said on Friday, May 12.

Department of National Defense Officer-in-Charge Carlito Galvez Jr. said a siphoning vessel from Singapore was expected by the end of May, while oil removal operations, estimated to take 30 days, were set to begin on the first week of June.  

The big question is whether the operation would still be of any use since there has been no remotely operated vehicle (ROV) or any other equipment used to check whether there’s still oil left in the tanker in the past weeks.

The two ROVs – one from Japan and one from the US Navy – that provided the reliable information on the oil leak left Oriental Mindoro first week of April, and there’s been no other equipment deployed since then to check on MT Princess Empress, which was still 400 meters deep in the ocean. 

Oil continued to leak, although perhaps in lower amounts, from some of MT Princess Empress’ tanks and valves after the ROVs left.

Philippine Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Artemio Abu told a House hearing on Tuesday, May 9, that the amount of industrial fuel oil or “black oil” still left in the tanker was already “unquantifiable” after the two ROVs left following the “bagging” operation, which only mitigated the leaks from the tanks and valves. At least two-thirds of the 900,000 liters of the black oil cargo had already spilled before the bagging operation.

In a statement posted on the MT Princess Empress incident website, the shipowner, RDC Reield Marine Services, said the services of Malayan Towage and Salvage Corporation (MTSC) have been engaged to “extract the remaining oil cargo from the wreck.”

“MTSC will deploy specialized remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs) to reach the wreck of the Princess Empress at a depth of 398 meters off Mindoro and implement the extraction process,” it said. 

While this is being undertaken, Malayan Towage tugs will continue helping the Philippine Coast Guard with spill containment and oil recovery, the company said. 

Malayan Towage is a nearly 50-year-old company that provides maritime solutions, including oil spill and pollution response and 24/7 marine emergency operations. It is accredited with the Philippine Coast Guard. 

In his update to President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., Galvez said 62.9 kilometers or 84% of 74.7 kilometers of coastline affected by the oil spill had been cleaned as of Wednesday, May 10. 

Three of five cluster-areas in Oriental Mindoro affected by the oil spill have been declared safe for fishing, and another set of water test results by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources will be released by May 15, Monday, Galvez said. 

Pola, Oriental Mindoro Mayor Jennifer Cruz and fisherfolk representatives aired during Tuesday’s hearing the difficulties they continue to face in the two areas where the fishing ban is still in effect, with oil slicks still showing up on shorelines.

Oriental Mindoro Governor Humerlito “Bonz” Dolor said in his briefing last Tuesday that the number of fisherfolk affected by the spill in the province had climbed to 31,524, as reported by the provincial agricultural office. 

Only 3,221 fishermen, fish vendors, and tourism-related workers in Oriental Mindoro have so far submitted insurance claims, Dolor said. 

Galvez also reported on Friday that the Department of Tourism and P&I Correspondent Aqueous Inc. will determine the number of insurance claimants under the tourism industry.

The Philippines can access $284 million or P15.7 billion from the insurers of MT Princess Empress and the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund, an international mutual aid organization that assists member states that suffer from oil spills. 

Environment Secretary Toni Yulo-Loyzaga earlier estimated the environmental damage in southern Luzon, Palawan, and Antique could reach P7 billion ($125.51 million), while the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council situational report pegged the total damage to fisheries at P4.7 billion ($84.26 million) as of Friday.  

Justice Undersecretary Raul Vasquez told lawmakers the oil spill damage was expected to exceed the P15.7-billion insurance and aid cover and that government would have to foot the bill after the cap was reached.

The justice department, however, was preparing to file administrative, civil, and criminal complaints against the shipowner, as well as other parties responsible for the oil spill. A writ of kalikasan was also being considered.

MT Princess Empress left the private port SL Harbor Terminal in Limay, Bataan, with over 900,000 liters of industrial fuel oil or black oil bound for Iloilo on February 28. It encountered strong winds and rough waters along the way, and its engine gave way when seawater poured onto the ship, leading to another social and environmental tragedy. – Rappler.com

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Isagani de Castro Jr.

Before he joined Rappler as senior desk editor, Isagani de Castro Jr. was longest-serving editor in chief of ABS-CBN News online. He had reported for the investigative magazine Newsbreak, Asahi Shimbun Manila, and Business Day. He has written chapters for books on politics, international relations, and civil society.