San Miguel ‘silence’ on oil spill slammed

More oily waste Philippine Coast Guard personnel and volunteers collect oily waste during a clean-up operation on the coast of Pola, Oriental Mindoro on 8 March, after tanker MT Princess Empress carrying 800,000 litters of industrial fuel sunk off Naujan, Oriental Mindoro on 28 February. A Senate inquiry yesterday bared MT Princess Empress had no updated permit to operate. | PCG/Agence France-Presse

Heavily diversified conglomerate San Miguel Corp. on Tuesday drew strong condemnation from alarmed environmentalists after documents showed it had chartered the sunken MT Princess Empress now spilling 800,000 liters of highly polluting industrial oil into Philippine waters.

Ramon Ang-led SMC — a food and beverage giant now deeply invested in real estate, public-private sector projects, and power generation — was denounced for its “deafening silence” on the sinking of the transport vessel in the waters off Naujan, Oriental Mindoro.

Groups like Protect Verde Island Passage said San Miguel, which had been boasting of its environmental CSR (corporate social responsibility) projects, should be held responsible for what may end up as the worst oil spill to threaten the country’s biodiversity and ecology.

Protect VIP lead convener Fr. Edwin Gariguez said SL Harbor Bulk Terminal Corp., a subsidiary of San Miguel Shipping and Lighterage, negotiated with MT Princess Empress operator RDC Reield Marine Service to transport the oil.

“We condemn the silence of San Miguel Corporation in its role in the MT Princess Empress tragedy and for the audacity to cover up its involvement with a mere cleanup drive to address the oil spill,” Gariguez said.

“San Miguel has been a main perpetrator of the fossil fuel boom in the country, including liquefied natural gas, which we have warned will increase the probability of a maritime incident that would threaten the ecologically sensitive ecosystems of Verde Island Passage. SMC has shown our fear was not misplaced,” Gariguez added.

The priest said San Miguel cannot be trusted with safety as long as it remains chained to the fossil fuel industry.

He expressed hope that San Miguel will be held accountable for its role in the oil spill under the Revised Rules on Prevention, Containment, Abatement, and Control of Oil Marine Pollution of the Philippine Coast Guard Memorandum Circular 01-2005.

San Miguel had yet to respond to Daily Tribune’s questions regarding the oil spill at press time.

Party link

Environmental advocate Senator Loren Legarda last 10 March called on Congress and government agencies concerned to investigate the impact of the oil spill on the environment, health, and tourism.

The spill menacing marine species has threatened Mindoro and its neighboring provinces, including Legarda’s home province, Antique. She had yet to respond to Tribune’s questions on San Miguel’s involvement in the oil spill.

Legarda’s party, the Nationalist Peoples’ Coalition, pushed Ang to run in the 2022 presidential election.

Tourist attractions like Boracay in Aklan, many times adjudged the world’s best beach with its powdery white sand, are bracing for the arrival of the spill to their shores.

Oil spill experts from Japan arrived in the Philippines last week and are now aiding the Philippine Coast Guard, the fisherfolk, and private and public sector groups in the cleanup.

“This puts on SMC the responsibility to pay up. SMC must pay at least a P70,000,000 cash bond — P50 million for the cleanup and containment and P20 million for damages and payment to the impacted communities,” Gariguez said.

He stressed that environmental destruction and livelihood deprivation should come with a hefty price tag. “The next time SMC is in the news for something big, we hope it will be for the biggest penalty ever imposed on a Philippine company,” he said.

No authority

Maritime Industry Authority administrator Atty. Hernani Fabia on Tuesday revealed that MT Princess Empress had no authority to operate since its owner needed to amend its certificate of public convenience or CPC when it added the new ship.

A CPC is a license to operate, or an authorization issued for the operation of public services for which no franchise, either municipal or legislative, is required by law such as a common carrier.

“RDC has a pending application for which we wanted to conduct a hearing, but they were missing some documents. They were not issued a permit immediately,” Fabia on Tuesday told the Senate Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Climate Change which is probing the oil spill.

Senator Francis Escudero grilled the Philippine Coast Guard over its failure to check the CPC for the MT Princess Empress.

RDC Reield Marine Services Inc. vice president Fritzee Tee said the sunken vessel was newly acquired and that they had applied for an amended CPC last November 2022.

“So nine times from whatever area it left port, the Coast Guard was supposed to inspect it and the Coast Guard saw that there was no amended CPC yet covering this vessel. (That means this is already the) ninth oversight on the part of the Coast Guard,” Escudero said.

Oriental Mindoro Gov. Humerlito Dolor raised concerns about how they are going to compensate the fishermen whose livelihood has been badly affected by the oil spill.

“All the funds from the national government (but this is punching us), for the past months we have been suffering from the impact of shear lines and now the oil spill,” he said.

More oil in ship

Environment Secretary Maria Antonia Yulo-Loyzaga warned that all the oil still in the vessel could spill out into the sea.

“The quantity of what we’ve seen on the shore, it is an indication the cargo was already spilling,” Loyzaga said, noting that the spillage is about 35,000 to 50,000 liters per day.

“The calculation then is it will take about 15 to 20 days to empty the vessel. If the assumption is correct, but until we see the actual vessel, we cannot say, but this is the estimated scenario,” she said.

As to how long it would take the oil to reach the different municipalities and provinces, Loyzaga said this would depend on the winds and the water currents.

Senator Cynthia Villar expressed dismay over the extent of the spill which has affected 21,691 families from 117 barangays in MIMAROPA and 7,616 families in four barangays of Western Visayas.

Villar said the oil has reached 13 marine protected areas and 61 tourist attractions, and an estimated eight kilometers of coastline in Caluya, Antique.

Senator Risa Hontiveros said the spill will not only affect the residents of Mindoro and nearby provinces, but will also threaten the country’s food supply as the area has the highest concentration of coral reefs, fishes and mangroves.

“The urgency of this matter cannot be underscored enough, and we welcome all the help we can get. We need all the help we can get,” she said.

No return

Senator Ramon Revilla Jr. described the extent of the damage caused by the oil spill as “overwhelming.”

“But we are already there — the point of no return for our once pristine and blue seas. The damage has been done. Be that as it may, we cannot remain unfazed by the threats to our environment from the oil spill,” he added.

Hence, Revilla stressed, there is a need to tighten the voyage regulations for tanker ships on Philippine seas.

“Those whose negligence caused the oil spill should be held equally, if not more, liable,” he added.

Revilla said RDC Reield Marine Services Inc., owner of the MT Princess Empress “must take full responsibility” for cleaning up the oil spill.

Oceana Philippines International on Tuesday urged the government to declare a state of national calamity amid the continuing “extensive” impact of the oil spill.

“It has caused and is still causing significant and irreversible damage to our natural life support system which has affected the livelihoods of the people living in the area, contaminating the waters, killing marine and bird life, and impacting the health of the affected residents,” OCP vice president Gloria Estenzo Ramos said.

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