Oriental Mindoro oil spill

New map from US shows oil spill possibly reaching Coron, Palawan

Isagani de Castro Jr.

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New map from US shows oil spill possibly reaching Coron, Palawan
Meanwhile, an environment and clean energy advocate laments the Marcos government's slow response to the oil spill

MANILA, Philippines – A new map produced by a United States science agency shows the “possible” oil spill from the sunken oil tanker MT Princess Empress reaching Coron, Palawan, as an environment and clean energy advocate lamented the slow response of the government to the oil spill. 

In a press statement on Monday, April 3, the Philippine Space Agency (PhilSA) said this latest map by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows that the “possible, unconfirmed” oil spill from MT Princess Empress had “reached the island of Coron, Palawan.” 

The PhilSA based this on the new map generated by the NOAA through the International Charter Space and Major Disasters.

“Possible, unconfirmed oil was observed in satellite imagery. Possible oil continued to emanate from the sunken tanker MT Princess Empress,” the April 2 analysis done by the NOAA reads.

It said the slicks located approximately 6.5 nautical miles (nm) east off Coron measured around 33 nm in length and 2.5 nm in width.

It added that “this area of possible oil may have originated from the point source” – meaning the sunken tanker which is 400 meters deep off the coast of Naujan, Oriental Mindoro – “and drifted to this location, but this could not be confirmed.”

“The oil slicks cover a total of approximately 61.27 square kilometers,” the PhilSA said.

The PhilSA said that during major disasters, it “activates the Charter on behalf of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) and acquires satellite images for damage assessment and other disaster-response related activities.”

The Philippine government has requested the US for help in the oil spill response, and the US assistance includes “satellite imagery” on oil spill monitoring and forecasting. 

The US Navy is also assisting in the oil spill response with its Dynamic Positioning Vessel, Pacific Valkyrie, which arrived on Monday in Calapan, Oriental Mindoro.

‘Slow response’

A leader of a group engaged in environment and clean energy advocacies lamented on Monday the slow response to the oil spill. 

“It’s frustrating that it’s been more than a month and we’re not able to deploy an ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) that’s capable of sealing [the oil from the tanker],” said Gerry Arances, executive director of the Centre for Environment and Energy Development (CEED), in an interview with ABS-CBN News. 

As a result of the slow response, over half of the 800,000 liters of oil on MT Princess Empress is estimated to have already spilled in parts of Oriental Mindoro, Palawan, and Antique, based on analyses of international experts and on the black oil collected from affected shorelines. 

Arances said the Philippines had not learned from the Guimaras oil spill 17 years ago, noting the country’s lack of equipment and expertise in dealing with the oil spill. 

The ship owner, RDC Reield Marine Services, tapped its foreign insurers and partners to respond to the oil spill. International agencies tasked with handling oil spills were activated, and countries with experience in dealing with oil spills – Japan, US, South Korea, France, United Kingdom – also pitched in. 

Oriental Mindoro Governor Humerlito “Bonz” Dolor posted on Saturday, April 1, images of the “specialized bags from the United Kingdom” for the “temporary closing of leaking areas” of MT Princess Empress. 

He said the bags had been boarded on the Japanese ship, Shin Nichi Maru, the work vessel of the ROV Hakuyo, which found the tanker on March 21, three weeks after MT Princess Empress sank on February 28 with over 800,000 liters of industrial fuel oil or “black oil.”

Dolor said these bags would first be checked if they work with ROV Hakuyo. The bags will be brought to the leaking portions of the MT Princess Empress in a bid to plug the leaks. The tanker sustained heavy damage, based on images gathered by Hakuyo.

Sixteen other “customized bags” were expected to arrive in Oriental Mindoro on Monday, Dolor said.

Based on the images taken by Hakuyo and the assessment of oil spill response experts, out of the 822,000 liters of oil on MT Princess Empress, more than 300,000 liters were still inside the vessel, Philippine Coast Guard spokesman Rear Admiral Armand Balillo said last week.

‘Declare national state of calamity’

CEED’s Arances urged the Marcos administration to declare the Verde Island Passage (VIP) in Batangas and Mindoro as a “no-go zone” for ships, echoing a similar call from the governor of Oriental Mindoro.

He also said VIP should be included in the Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) as a “valuable seascape.” 

He said the VIP is “not just a treasure for Batangas and Mindoro but also the world since it’s a center of marine shorefish biodiversity.” 

Arances reiterated CEED’s call for transparency on the oil spill, and claimed the national government was “downplaying” the implication of the oil spill. 

He said billions worth of marine resources are in peril, notwithstanding the impact on tourism this year, especially now that COVID-19 travel restrictions have been lifted. 

Arances said news about the oil spill would hurt the resort towns of San Juan and Lobo in Batangas and of Puerto Galera in Oriental Mindoro, although these towns had no signs of black oil as of Monday.

He also urged the Marcos administration to declare a “national state of calamity” in response to the oil spill since the cleanup would take not just months but years, citing the 13 years it took to rehabilitate the areas in Guimaras Island affected by the oil spill from the sinking of the oil tanker MT Solar in 2006.

Arances said the impact of the oil spill is heavy, and the response is not adequate.

In the meantime, the Department of Social Welfare and Development said in the latest report of the Disaster Response Operations Monitoring and Information Center (DROMIC) that a total of 37,871 families or 178,386 people had been affected by the oil spill.

These families are in Oriental Mindoro, Batangas, Palawan, and Antique. Nearly two-thirds of those affected are in Oriental Mindoro, with 24,292 families affected across 145 barangays in the province. – 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.