THE TANKER that sank and caused an oil spill in the waters of Oriental Mindoro province south of the Philippine capital did not have a permit to operate, maritime officials told the Senate on Tuesday.
RDC [Reield Marine Services, Inc.] has a pending application which we were hoping to conduct a hearing on, but there were documents missing,” Hernani N. Fabia, administrator of the Maritime Industry Authority, told a hearing investigating the spill. “Since we still have to hear it, they were not issued (a certificate of public convenience) immediately.”
MT Princess Empress was carrying 800,000 liters of industrial fuel oil on Feb. 28 when it sank off the waters of Naujan Oriental Mindoro, which surrounds the Verde Island Passage, one of the world’s most diverse marine habitats.
Marine experts estimate that as many as 20,000 hectares of coral reefs, 9,900 hectares of mangroves and 6,000 hectares of seagrass could have been affected by the spill.
Senators and congressmen have called for separate investigations of the incident, which prompted the province to place nearly 80 coastal villages in nine towns under a state of calamity.
Mr. Fabia told the Senate environment committee MT Princess Empress had not been included in the permit issued to RDC, which meant it was not supposed to sail.
During the hearing, RDC Vice President Fritzee Tee said the sunken tanker had sailed nine times before it sank.
The company, she added, had applied to include the vessel in its permit as early as November, with all documents passed by December. It sailed after submitting all the requirements.
“So it has happened nine times already,” Senator Francis Joseph “Chiz” G. Escudero told the hearing. “Nine times from whatever port it left from. This is the ninth oversight on the part of (the) Coast Guard,” he added.
Ms. Tee confirmed two locations — Bataan ang Manila where the MT Princess Empress, commissioned in 2022, had sailed from.
Senators asked her to send a report detailing the journeys, and for the Philippine Coast Guard to explain why the ship was allowed to operate.
Coast Guard Vice Admiral Joseph M. Coyme admitted that there was no adequate inspection, adding a check on the certificate of public convenience was not included in the ship’s pre-departure inspection checklist.
He said the Coast Guard would investigate lapses on the part of their personnel.
“If your people were not careless, they wouldn’t have allowed that vessel to sail because it lacked documents and we wouldn’t be talking to each other here, period,” Senator Rafael “Raffy” T. Tulfo told coast guard officials in Filipino. Coast Guard officials must be charged for negligence, he added.
Coast Guard Deputy Commandant for Operations Rolando Lizor N. Punzalan, Jr. said the damage caused by the oil spill had reached 55.5 kilometers of the coastline — 45 kilometers in Oriental Mindoro, 6 kilometers in Antique province and 4.5 kilometers in Palawan.
More than 5,200 liters of oil-water mixture and 115.3 kilos of oil-contaminated garbage had been collected.
“It is an understatement to say that this is a distressing news for the country,” Senator Cynthia A. Villar, who led the hearing, said. “This oil spill incident is a setback on our ongoing efforts to strengthen our ecosystem and mend our fragile biodiversity while we are undergoing the United Nations Decade of Ecosystem Restoration from 2021 to 2030.”
“Moreover, as the people are still inching towards recovery from the pandemic, it appears unwarranted for the residents of the provinces and municipalities… to be subjected to additional hardships because of the oil spill,” she added.
Marine protected areas and 61 tourist attractions in Oriental Mindoro have been affected by the oil spill the National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council said in a report.
It also found that 107,232 people in 117 villages in the Mimaropa region and 26,259 people in four villages in Western Visayas were affected.
Ms. Villar called for the ship owner and all concerned government agencies to contain the spill as soon as possible.
“Time is of the essence in order to avert further and irreparable damages,” she said. “Sure, it will not be easy, but we have the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan in place, there is technology in the application of containment booms, skimming of oil, siphoning of oil, use of sorbents and if it is safe, the use of chemical dispersants to break down oil,” she added.
“We hope to learn and see what will be the calibrated actions of our relevant government agencies towards the goal of oil containment,” Ms. Villar said, noting that the private sector, United States and Japan have signified willingness to help.
Senator Francis N. Tolentino said Marina should lay down the guidelines on how the compensation fund under the Oil Pollution Compensation Act could be used to fast-track aid to affected residents and local governments.
Meanwhile, Greenpeace Philippines urged the government of President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. to seek accountability from the owner of the sunken vessel “for the irreparable and ongoing damage” of the oil spill.
In a statement, the environmental group said companies responsible for the spill should “go beyond cleanup” and pay damages for destroying the environment and causing livelihood loss.
“The government must compel companies involved to show responsibility and transparency and act with more urgency in stopping the spill and in compensating communities,” Greenpeace campaigner Jefferson M. Chua said.
Fideles D. Sallidao, director of th Philippine Coast Guard National Operations Center for Oil Pollution, earlier said the vessel had come from the SL Harbor Bulk Terminal Corp. in Lima, Bataan and was on its way to Iloilo City in central Philippines.
Greenpeace said authorities should designate sea lanes for ships transporting hazardous materials away from rich fishing areas and critical marine reserves.
It also reiterated its call to phase out fossil fuels to prevent further damage to the environment and protect communities, noting that it is impossible to fully clean up an oil spill.
“This catastrophe is a reminder that at all stages of its lifecycle, fossil fuels bring permanent harm to people and the planet,” Greanpeace said.