Oriental Mindoro oil spill

A year after oil spill, Pola fisherfolk yet to receive full compensation

Iya Gozum

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A year after oil spill, Pola fisherfolk yet to receive full compensation

OIL SPILL. Pola town in Oriental Mindoro was among the municipalities hardest hit by the oil spill.

Jilson Tiu/CEED

'Kami ang ground zero, pero kami ang nahuhuli sa bigayan,' Aldrin Villanueva, a fishing community leader in Pola, Oriental Mindoro tells Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – Exactly a year after the oil spill in Oriental Mindoro, Pola fishermen have yet to receive full compensation from the International Oil Pollution Compensation Funds (IOPC), a London-based organization that assists member states that suffer from oil spills from tankers.

Only 627 out of around 4,000 fisherfolk in Pola have received the first tranche of the compensation, Pola Mayor Jennifer Cruz confirmed in a message to Rappler. Pola is considered the ground zero of the oil spill.

Aldrin Villanueva, a fishing community leader, said those who received compensation got P14,768 in the first tranche that was distributed only this month.

Each beneficiary stands to receive different amounts, depending on experts’ assessment of the claims submitted by those affected by the oil spill. Villanueva said others were set to receive an average of P54,000.

“Kami ang ground zero, pero kami ang nahuhuli sa bigayan,” Villanueva told Rappler in a phone call. (We’re the ground zero, but we’re the ones left behind when it comes to compensation.)

In the aftermath of the oil spill, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources imposed a fishing ban. The towns of Pola, Pinamalayan and Naujan, due to their vicinity to the sunken tanker, suffered from a prolonged fishing ban in comparison to other municipalities in the province.

It was only in July 2023 – five months after the oil spill – that fisherfolk from the three oil spill-hit towns were permitted to continue fishing. In between, some fishermen opted to help with the clean-up operations led by the Philippine Coast Guard to make money. (READ: Marine life has ways to weather an oil spill. Can we keep up?)

The IOPC provides additional funds for member states in the event the civil liability insurance of the shipowner is not enough to pay for the oil pollution damage.

The Philippines became a member of the IOPC after it ratified two international conventions: the International Convention on Civil Liability Convention for Oil Pollution Damage, and the 1992 International Convention on the Establishment of an International Fund for Compensation for Oil Pollution Damage or 1992 Fund.

At 4:16 am on February 28, 2023, MT Princess Empress was reported half-submerged off the coast of Naujan, Oriental Mindoro. It had 20 crew members and spilled most of the 900,000 liters of industrial fuel oil it was carrying.

The next day, the tanker was completely submerged, sending local governments and the Marcos administration scrambling. A few days later, Pola declared a state of calamity. In the aftermath, the black oil spread to other areas, including the biodiverse Verde Island in Batangas, and as far as Taytay, Palawan. Operations to siphon the minimal amount of oil left in the tanker wrapped up in June 2023.

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Damage to livelihood, environment

Non-profit organization Center for Ecology, Ecology, and Development (CEED) reported that based on their recent findings, last year’s oil spill damage amounted to P41.2 billion.

CEED’s report extrapolated the weekly income loss of Naujan fisherfolk valued at P3,489.50 to other fishermen affected by the oil spill. Stretching the loss of income for 39 weeks, the report estimated a loss of P1.1 billion in terms of livelihood.

Meanwhile, environmental damage was valued at P41.2 billion. Last year, Environment Secretary Toni Yulo-Loyzaga initially estimated the environmental damage at P7 billion.

CEED also studied the concentration of oil and grease in Oriental Mindoro.

Four out of six marine protected areas in Pola and Pinamalayan failed the water quality guidelines set by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources for oil and grease.

“It is highly recommended to pursue regular testing of water quality in the study sites to determine the safety of coastal waters to become the basis for clean-up and restoration efforts in oil spill-affected waters in the province,” CEED’s report concluded.

Other factors, such as domestic pollution and leakages from other tankers using the route, should also be considered, the sustainability think tank added.

Seeking accountability

It’s been a year since the Philippines worst oil spill in nearly 20 years and yet no one has been held accountable for the oil spill and the damage it caused to the environment and people’s livelihood.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) recently recommended that criminal charges against the shipowner and corporate officers of shipowner RDC Reield Marine Services be pursued on the grounds of falsification of documents. A separate environmental complaint is still pending.

But Fr. Edwin Gariguez, a long-time environmental advocate and lead convenor of coalition Protect VIP, said that focusing on falsification of documents is not enough.

Moreover, Gariguez pointed out that San Miguel Corporation (SMC) remains unscathed a year later as all eyes are on the shipowner. Rappler reported last year that it was a San Miguel Shipping subsidiary that chartered MT Princess Empress from Bataan to Iloilo. SMC chief Ramon Ang said in March 31, 2023 that its SL Harbor Bulk Terminal Corporation in the town of Limay where the industrial fuel oil came from was just one of the clients of RDC Reield Marine Services.

“’Yung malakaing kumpanya ng San Miguel ay hindi na nababanggit,” Gariguez told Rappler in an interview. “Mas madaling habulin kasi mas maliit [ang RDC Reield Marine Services]. ‘Yung malaking isda nakawala.”

(The big company of San Miguel was not getting mentioned anymore. It’s easier to go after the small fish that is RDC Reield Marine Services. The big fish managed to escape.)

Gerry Arances, executive director of CEED, linked SMC’s responsibility to the lack of compensation as well as the damage they estimated to be at P41.2 billion.

“SMC’s build-out of fossil fuel projects, especially gas in the Verde Island Passage, risks bringing immeasurable future damage,” Arances said in a statement. “SMC owes it to impacted communities to pay up, and, even more importantly, clean up from its continued promotion of fossil fuels.” – Rappler.com

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Iya Gozum

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