8/11, One Year After

Newsbreak
Lessons from the Guimaras oil spill and what steps are being taken to prepare the country for similar disasters

Editor’s Note: This story was first published by Newsbreak.

MANILA, Philippines – There is little hint from Phoebe Sabado’s tanned face how, one year ago, she and her fisherman husband were worried sick of how her family of six would survive the Guimaras oil spill. The slick that leaked out of a capsized oil tanker reached the shores of Nueva Valencia town, just a stone’s throw away from their nipa house. She has since transformed from a housewife to a local leader of a fishing association and is now the head of the parent-teachers association at the spanking new Petron School nearby.

The fishing village of Nueva Valencia lies near the spot where the ill-fated vessel sunk during rough weather in August 11, 2006. Sabado, together with village leaders, coordinates who have already been given goats, boats, and livelihood projects by non-government organizations, corporate foundations, and individual donors. And one of the most important tasks now is to assist villagers follow up their compensation claims.

The Guimaras incident has since been dubbed 8/11, obviously in reference to America’s 9/11 tragedy. Guimaras is the country’s worst environmental and marine disaster.

In 2005, the country experienced an oil spill caused by a power barge of the National Power Corporation that ran aground off the coast of Semirara Island in Antique province, spilling some 220,000 liters of oil. That’s only one-seventh of the volume spilled by Petron-commissioned M/T Solar 1, which was carrying 2.2 million liters of oil. Only about 9,000 liters would be eventually recovered from the vessel which now lies 639 meters from the surface. Meaning, almost all of the oil cargo has leaked out.

Nueva Valencia bore most of the brunt, accounting for 146 kilometers out of the total 220 kilometers of coastlines affected. The slick reached a portion of Iloilo City in nearby Panay island, west of Guimaras, before the waves eventually moved to Guimaras’ eastern side, even on a portion of Negros island.

All in all, the extent of the damage included 16 square kilometers of coral, 551 hectares of mangrove, 58 hectares of seaweeds, 824 hectares of fishponds. Of these, 1,150 hectares are considered marine reserve areas. About 7,510 families (or 37,686 persons) have been directly or indirectly affected.

“It was like a bad dream, but we were awake,” said Jimmy Babon, head of the provincial planning and development coordinating council in Guimaras.

Lack of Coordination

On the first anniversary of the oil spill, it’s time to take stock of lessons learned. First, the lines of authority were unclear.

Days after the accident, there was chaos. Under our Oil Spill Contingency Plan, the Philippine Coast Guard was supposedly the default government agency in charge of oil spill incidents. It has trained personnel to handle such accidents. The problem is, their training, procedures, and equipment are only applicable when the oil slick is still on water. They are not prepared for an event when the slick has already hit land.

Because the accident occurred during a typhoon, the slick had already made its way to the shores of Nueva Valencia even before the Coast Guard was alerted. There was not enough time and opportunity to contain the slick.

So the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC) was tapped. But it too was unprepared. The agency was used to handling disasters involving landslides and typhoon-related ones, not oil spills. The chairman then, Avelino Cruz, was made chairman of “Task Force Guimaras” to oversee general concerns. Cabinet members from the tourism, justice, environment, health, social welfare, and transportation departments had a marching order from President Arroyo to accelerate the clean-up operations and restore the image of Guimaras.

At the local government level, they felt that since they were the direct casualties of the accident, they also had to organize themselves. “Task Force Sunrise” was a pooling together of the provincial government and the municipal mayors. Then there was also the “Task Force SOS” (Solar I Oil Spill) which was set up to oversee the other ad-hoc groups: Petron’s Ligtas Guimaras team, and the Coast Guard’s response group.

All these groups were focusing on containing the damage, but their roles vis-à-vis each others were initially unclear. The NDCC was perceived by the local government units more as the agency which was monitoring from the top and was merely a provider of calamity funds. And there was initial tension between the coast guards and Task Force SOS. The former was reportedly confident that their previous oil spill experiences would be enough basis for their actions, but the latter asserted its enforcement powers and believed it could do a better job.

Where’s the Protocol?

Inevitably, there was a lot of finger pointing. For example, when the Coast Guard was trying to take over the clean-up operations on the shore, Petron decided not to give the resources to the Coast Guard but instead took control and introduced the Cash For Work program where affected fisherfolk, about 1,000 to 1,700 everyday, were hired for the manual clean up of some 140 kilometers of shoreline. By taking control, Petron was able to oversee how its P18 million was spent during its two-and-a-half months clean up operations. Anyhow, it was also an opportunity to show the locals that it cares.

There were debates about the use of dispersants on mangroves. The use of oil spill chemical dispersants, according to the Coast Guard, is standard procedure in the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan, and has been effective. But the environment department countered that it is not sure of its long-term effect on mangroves since there is no wave action on shore. (The Task Force Guimaras head eventually settled this by giving the jurisdiction to the environment department.)

With so many groups involved, contradictory statements were made to the media. For example, the Coast Guard was quoted as saying that the oil spill might reach Boracay. Damage control had to be made with the environment secretary refuting this in a statement. President Arroyo even put a gag order on the Coast Guard, appointing the heads of Task Force Guimaras and Task Force SOS as the only official spokespersons.

At that time, there was pressure to show the public that something was being done. Even a tip taken from an Internet site about how hair strands could help absorb oil, was picked up by individuals and groups who started donating hair cuttings. The environment department had to douse the idea, clarifying that human hair does not readily decompose, and in the end may cause more damage than help.

Hostile Media

Second, parties to the oil spill should deal with the media openly.

The conflicting—and initially, the absence of—statements from the authorities spawned speculation. The early pictures and video grabs of affected villages became the default visuals when the national and international press reported about the Guimaras oil spill, even when the clean-up operations had long progressed.

Petron, in particular, had problems with its public image. Initially, they clammed up, and instead focused on organizing clean-up operations through the Cash For Work program.

Petron officials knew that they were not directly liable for the mess because Petron was merely the owner of the oil cargo, which was being carried by a vessel of Sunshine Maritime Development Corp., the shipping company. In the complex business of maritime transportation, liabilities are clearly defined, and Sunshine Maritime had a carrier liability. Petron’s silence did not help the public in clearly distinguishing the liabilities of Petron and Sunshine Maritime, since the environmental and militant groups kept on urging Petron to “take responsibility.”

Actually, Petron was coordinating relief operations and medical missions, engaging with environmental NGOs and the scientific community, and partnering with other corporate foundations for alternative livelihood projects. For example, it collaborated with Splash Foundation and Tesda in providing basic cosmetology courses to Guimaras women. Petron Foundation also went full-blast with community programs concentrating on education-related projects. At any one time, it had 10 percent of its total employees manning their Guimaras satellite office, which was linked to their main office in Manila.

Nicasio Alcantara, Petron’s chairman, still believes that doing their job quietly was the best they could do at that time. He told Newsbreak: “We did not have time to engage with the media because there were many other things to do. We were hands on and on the ground, helping the villagers. We were under siege. The only thing we were asking the media was factual reporting. But the press tended to look for ways to dramatize the situation. Anyway, the local communities knew what we were doing for them.”

Candid Information

Other crisis management experts, however, believe a different strategy would have been better. “At the onset of a crisis, be honest and transparent with the media. Yes, there will be initial difficult questions, but eventually they would tend to be more forgiving in their reports if they hear—not only see—that the company honchos are really sincere,” says one veteran public relations practitioner.

Presidential Adviser for Western Visayas Rafael Coscolluela, head of Task Force SOS could not agree more. He said Petron’s public image led to real problems with politicians and the Coast Guard. “One of the major lessons learned from the Guimaras oil spill is this: There is no more important time than at the very beginning of an accident for the head of a company involved to be in front of the media and come up with candid information.”

Has this hurt the sales of Petron? Actually, no. In fact, company sales in 2006 reached P211.72 billion or a 10.5% increase from 2005′s. And according to Alcantara, pump sales in Guimaras even went up during the period of the crisis. But he hinted that the brand was “wounded.” He did not explain further.

More Claimants than Affected Residents

The P300-a-day pay under the Cash for Work program lasted only until November 2006. Some of the villagers have returned to fishing, while others have availed of the livelihood programs provided by various NGOs and corporate foundations.

Around that time, the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund (IOPCF), a London-based intergovernmental agency that indemnifies oil spill victims, started processing compensation claims. IOPC is funded by levy contributions from its member countries or the corporates involved in crude or heavy fuel oil sea transport.

In the first batch of claimants, around 22,644 claims have already been validated by the IOPC and were paid from January to March 2007. Claimants received anywhere between P3,000 to P30,000 per claimant, depending on the economic impact of the oil spill damage on them.

To establish the claimants’ identity and credentials, the IOPC requires that the documentary requirements submitted to them be facilitated by the barangay captains who would then get the endorsement of the agriculture and fisheries council, mayor, municipal agriculturist, congressman, and the governor.

As the second batch of claimants was being processed, preparations for the May 2007 election was already underway. Claims flooded the IOPC office in Guimaras as total claims zoomed to more than 125,000.

As the IOPC staff screened out dubious claimants, they made startling discoveries. For example, the total number of the first and second batch already account for 80 percent of the entire Guimaras province’s population, when in fact, only those on the shoreline were affected. And based on the population of the three coastal towns which were worst affected, the total number of claimants even exceeded them.

Checking carefully, the IOPC staff found that some claimants already received compensation but were applying again. Others were underaged, thus could not be considered as engaged in fishing when the oil spill occurred. And expectedly, some were not even coastal residents but inland villagers.

As of July 2007, only 134 of the 125,000 claims have been validated so far. Majority of the rest are expected to be rejected.

Next Steps

Residents say that when they dig about six inches through the sand, they could still see greasy deposits. Tourist arrivals have declined. In the first six months of 2007, only 87,000 tourists visited the island, down from 92,000 during the same period in 2006.

To be sure, some headway has already been made. Last June, President Arroyo signed Republic Act 9483 or the Oil Pollution Compensation Act which basically spells out that succeeding oil spills will be the ship owners’ liability, thus expediting the compensation of those affected. It also establishes an Oil Pollution Management Fund which will come from contributions of owners and operators of tankers and barges hauling oil and petroleum products in Philippine waters.

Glenn Aguilar, a University of the Philippines Visayas chancellor, also noted how it is important to institutionalize scientific assessment. “It is slow, expensive, contentious, but necessary.”

A better contingency plan is also being drafted to cover oil spill management—before, during and after it happens. The charters of the Coast Guard and the Maritime Industry Authority are being reviewed to have clearer accountabilities for safer sea transport of dangerous cargos.

What would take time is the potential alteration of sea routes for dangerous cargoes. This will involve a lengthy consultation process with stakeholders, including international ship owners and oil companies which might have to make major adjustments in their costing, delivery period, and their operational viability.

It’s foolhardy to wish that Guimaras will be the last oil spill in the country. After all, we are an archipelago of more than 7,100 islands. But hopefully, in the next one, there will be less guessing fame and finger pointing. – Rappler.com