SMC chartered coffin ship?

San Miguel cannot escape liability for not conducting due diligence on the company to which it entrusted vast quantities of fossil fuel

Photo courtesy of Philippine Coast Guard

The Department of Justice is investigating whether the sinking of the MT Princess Empress — chartered by San Miguel Corporation to ferry 900,000 liters of oil now polluting Philippine waters — was intentional to collect insurance money.

Or if it’s not a case of the old maritime ruse involving so-called “coffin ships,” dilapidated vessels that have been over-insured and are therefore worth more to their owners sunken than afloat, maybe one involving criminal negligence in trying to make money from a junk vessel that’s not sea-a.

Whatever the case may be, Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin “Boying” Remulla on Thursday vowed to get to the bottom of the brouhaha now cutting a wide swath of marine life destruction, lost livelihoods, and environmental despoliation.

“It was not built to be a tanker from the very beginning and we’re looking at the angle of insurance. It seems that it has huge insurance,” Remulla said, adding they’d file the necessary criminal and civil cases if warranted.

The ill-fated oil tanker is reportedly insured for $1 billion in Protection and Indemnity Insurance for “every incident” including an oil spill.

The Maritime Industry Authority, or Marina, called the operator of the MT Princess Empress and its reported charterer San Miguel Corporation to a closed-door hearing on Thursday.

Marina spokesperson, Atty. Sharon Aledo maintained that the sunken ship’s operator Reield Marine Services had yet to secure a Certificate of Public Convenience, thus all of MT Princess Empress’ nine trips had been illegal, including its last that put San Miguel under the spotlight over questions of contracting an allegedly dubious service provider.

“All ships that ferry oil are like ticking time bombs because of their potential to wreak havoc on the environment should they sink like what happened to MT Princess Empress,” a maritime player, who requested anonymity, told Daily Tribune.

“San Miguel cannot escape liability for not conducting due diligence on the company to which it entrusted vast quantities of fossil fuel. Did SMC try to scrimp on transport costs by not chartering an operator with impeccable credentials?”

Environmental groups like the Protect Verde Island Passages slammed San Miguel of “its audacity of cover up its involvement” in the oil spill.

50,000 liters a day

“We condemn the silence of San Miguel Corporation in its role in the MT Princess Empress tragedy,” PVI Passage lead convenor Fr. Edwin Gariguez told this paper.

Gariguez said SMC subsidiary SL Harbor Bulk Terminal chartered the ship to transport oil, now leaking at a rate of 50,000 liters a day according to a Department of the Environment and Natural Resources estimate.

Investigating the oil spill on Tuesday, senators lambasted the ship operator and the Philippine Coast Guard for allowing the ship to sail even without a CPC.

No one among the lawmakers found time to look at the accountability of Ramon Ang-led SMC as a charterer under the Revised Rules on Prevention, Containment, Abatement, and Control of Oil Marine Pollution under PCG Memorandum Circular 01-2005.

Remulla yesterday said he had met with environment, trade, and transportation officials and the National Bureau of Investigation to look at legal actions against those responsible for the oil spill.

“We are sorting out the evidence so that we can file the proper complaint. We are collating all the data necessary to build up a case,” Remulla said.

He said every angle is being looked into by the NBI including the alleged attempt of the operators to deceive authorities on the seaworthiness of the MT Princess Empress.

Remulla said they are looking at information that the vessel was not new, but was rebuilt from scrap twice as an oil tanker.

The ship operator had maintained that the ship was built brand new two years ago.

The DoJ chief said they have already secured statements detailing the real condition of the vessel and the other possible circumstances that led to its sinking.

“There is a possible case. There are possible cases to be filed. We intend to do it by next week, by Tuesday. We will work over the weekend to study what we have to do on this case,” Remulla said.

In Limay, Bataan, PCG Commander Jonathan Serote refused to answer questions about why the Coast guard there allowed the MT Princess Empress to depart without proper clearance.

No talk

Serote directed all of Tribune’s to the PCG’s national spokesperson despite their unit being directly involved, according to reports, in allowing the sunken ship to sail.

“I am not allowed and authorized to speak about it as we have an official spokesman to answer it in Manila,” said Serote, who, however, expressed readiness to answer questions from the authorities and lawmakers.

The PCG said Wednesday it is investigating the authenticity of the permit presented to its personnel to allow MT Princess Empress to sail.

The tanker is leaking 900,000 liters of oil (not 800,000 as reported earlier) that has affected over 108,000 people in 118 barangays in Oriental Mindoro and Palawan, according to the Office of Civil Defense.

Recent reports showed that according to Oriental Mindoro Governor Humerlito Dolor, 122 people in Oriental Mindoro, including children have fallen ill after oil reached their shores.

Meanwhile, the Palace was mum on the developments of the devastating oil spill.

“We released an update on the efforts of the NDRRMC based on the directive of the President,” Communications Secretary Cheloy Garafil said in a text message, in response to Daily Tribune’s query on the Palace’s immediate actions amid the controversies revealed on Tuesday’s hearing of the Senate Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Climate Change.

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