Oriental Mindoro oil spill

Oil spill exposes a Coast Guard in dire need of modernization

Iya Gozum

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Oil spill exposes a Coast Guard in dire need of modernization

Oily seawater being pushed by waves to the whole stretch of Pola's shorelines in the province of Oriental Mindoro first week of May 2023. Mayor Jennifer Cruz Facebook page

Jennifer Cruz FB page

'We realized that our government doesn’t have the available, highly-technical equipment for oil spill response,' says Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Artemio Abu during a House probe

MANILA, Philippines – Pola, Oriental Mindoro Mayor Jennifer Cruz asked for three minutes from the House probe on Tuesday, May 9, to show just how much her constituents are affected by the oil spill from the capsized tanker MT Princess Empress.

They called the oil spill disaster a “disturbance to [their] normal way of life.” In images presented in the probe, clumps of oil are washed on the shores of Pola. Small puddles of oil are uncovered when one digs into the sand.

The local government estimated that 533.98 hectares of mangroves, 438.02 hectares of fish sanctuaries are at risk.

“The underwater flora, plants are struggling to survive,” Cruz said in her Facebook post. Over two months since the sinking of MT Princess Empress, she said “oily seawater is still being pushed by waves to the whole stretch of Pola’s shorelines.”

The situation gets worse when the waves are strong, with traces of black oil scattered on the shorelines, she said.

And Cruz expressed frustration that after the shores are cleaned, the pollution keeps coming back.

“Hanggang ngayon may mga ganyan pa din po na sitwasyon sa ating dalampasigan. Paulit ulit lang pagakakalinis bumabalik lang ulit. Alam natin na matatapos din ito pero ang tanong kelan?” she said in her post, which she also articulated in the hearing.

(Up to now, the situation is the same. After the cleanup, the pollution returns. We know this will end but the question is, when?)

Ill-equipped Coast Guard

In the joint hearing conducted by the House committee on ecology and the committee on natural resources, the problem of an ill-equipped institution – the Philippine Coast Guard – was brought up.

No less than the head of the PCG admitted this as he pitched for a law that would modernize the institution.

“We realized that our government doesn’t have the available, highly-technical equipment for oil spill response,” PCG Commandant Admiral Artemio Abu said during the hearing.

If it were not for a Japanese Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) called Hakuyo, the exact location of the tanker would not have been identified any sooner and the oil leak mitigated.

“Matagal po bago natin na outsource ‘yung equipment, ‘yung ROV para ma-determine kung saan at kung paano i-address ‘yung barko na nasa ilalim,” he added.

(It took a long time before we outsourced the ROV that determined the location of the tanker, and figured out how to address it.)

The Japanese ROV found the MT Princess Empress around 400 meters deep in the ocean on March 21, three weeks after the oil tanker sank. By then, most of the industrial fuel oil on the tanker had already spilled.

Abu relayed the PCG’s recommendations so that the Philippines can respond faster in case a similar incident happens in the future:

  • Passage of amendment of RA 9993 that would remove the task of pre-departure inspection from the Coast Guard, putting the onus of accountability and responsibility on the shipowner
  • Passage of the PCG Modernization Law so that the Coast Guard can have the equipment for a quick response
  • Enactment of National Oil Spill Contingency Plan.

While the PCG confidently reported that the oil “seepage is under control,” citing the leaks that were stopped since April 4, they also said that they have no new information yet if there is still oil left after the Japanese ROV and the US Coast Guard left Oriental Mindoro first week of April.

Scientists who Rappler earlier talked to also pointed out the lack of updated equipment and training for the country’s Coast Guard.

Irene Rodriquez of the UP Marine Science Institute told Rappler that the PCG would have better capabilities if it was equipped with a vessel that has a dynamic positioning system with deployable ROVs. “We have the urgency, expertise, not the tools. We need resources,” Rodriguez said.

Even Coast Guard personnel training needs improvement.

Abu, however, said the PCG is firm on personnel who may have been remiss in their duties. “Kami po ay hindi nag-to-tolerate sa mga kasamahan namin kung sino ang may pagkakamali sa may insidenteng ito,” he said. (We do not tolerate our officers who have made mistakes that led to this incident.)

“We have conducted the necessary administrative investigation to all our people and we have sanctioned them accordingly.”

Fake documents abound PCG

Abu maintained that they allowed MT Princess Empress to sail despite the lack of an amended Certificate of Public Convenience (CPC), because the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) allegedly issued a “decision” giving the ship leeway.

Abu said, “All the [ship’s] documents are in order. By presumption of regularity, the people of the Coast Guard cleared the vessel.”

However, when pressed, the admiral added, “Our people don’t have the capability to [confirm] the authenticity of these documents.”

Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) officials, however, refuted this and said there was no such decision from regulators allowing the ship to sail. In the documents shown by Abu to the committee, these were not actually signed by MARINA personnel, although another Coast Guard staff later said they could present the signed documents.

Checking these documents is part of the PCG’s pre-departure inspection, but Abu reiterated that this should not be part of their work anymore. (READ: Predeparture inspection of domestic vessels should no longer be PCG’s task)

The seaworthiness of a vessel is evaluated during the pre-departure inspection and includes checking “compliance of vessels to safety standards and prevention of vessels from sailing for failure to comply with the standards,” according to the Maritime Safety Integrated Information System.

“’Yung provision na ‘yan ay noong pang sinaunang panahon na nasa batas natin,” said Abu. (That is an antiquated provision.) “And it is very impossible for your Coast Guard to conduct pre-departure inspection in every vessel departing our ports. Let us be honest on that.”

Tip of the iceberg?

Falsification of documents is not the only case that can be filed against the shipowner. During the hearing, Justice Undersecretary Raul Vasquez said they are “exploring the possibility of initiating criminal, civil, and administrative liabilities against the shipowner, insurance company, and regulatory bodies.”

The ship is owned by RDC Reield Marine Services, which declared that MT Princess Empress was newly built in September 2022. A National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) probe, however, discovered that it was rebuilt from scrap.

Gabriela Representative Arlene Brosas expressed frustration over the falsified documents, and the fact that the vessel was allowed to sail 17 to 19 times (by PCG’s estimate) even though it had no valid permit.

Brosas said this might just be the tip of the iceberg, and that MT Princess Empress may not be the only tanker allowed to sail without a valid license.

“Hindi lang itong tanker na ito ang may problema.” (This is not the only tanker that has a problem.)

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. It sank off Naujan, Oriental Mindoro later that day causing environmental damage that could reach P7 billion.

More than 24,000 fisherfolk have been unable to fish, causing economic losses reaching P3.8 billion as of May 9. – Rappler.com

On Earth Day, oil-spill affected communities in Oriental Mindoro call for justice

On Earth Day, oil-spill affected communities in Oriental Mindoro call for justice

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Iya Gozum

Iya Gozum covers the environment, agriculture, and science beats for Rappler.