Gov’t must act fast amid SMC’s silence

While the difficult process of extracting full accountability from the companies responsible for the oil spill drags on, the government should use all its resources to avert an ecological disaster.

Ecology watchdog Protect Verde Island Passage called on President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. to direct all government agencies to act fast to contain the oil spill from the MT Princess Empress.

The slick has reportedly reached Calapan City.

“The only way to meet the President’s objective of cleaning up the oil spill in four months is to compel government agencies to direct all their resources to containment,” Protect VIP said.

San Miguel Corporation’s subsidiary, SL Harbor Bulk Terminal Corporation, is being pointed to as the culprit in the environmental devastation and the disruption of the livelihood of thousands of Oriental Mindoro residents.

“We also support the consensus reached in the Senate hearing on the need to assign an oil spill response chief. Mr. President, the VIP is a crucial contributor to the economy. You must move now,” said Fr. Edwin Gariguez, Protect VIP convener.

Protect VIP had criticized the continuing silence of SMC’s San Miguel Shipping and Lighterage, the charterer of the MT Princess Empress which is owned by RDC Reield Marine Services.

The group said with SMC being the charterer, it is considered the owner of the vessel.

The Revised Rules on Prevention, Containment, Abatement, and Control of Oil Marine Pollution of the Philippine Coast Guard Memorandum Circular 01-2005 provides that SMC must pay a cash bond of at least P70 million, of which P50 million will be used for clean-up and containment and P20 million for damages and payment to impacted communities.

Protect VIP, which is a coalition of sectors, communities, and organizations that advocate for the protection of the Verde Island Passage, confirmed that the City Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office of Calapan had found traces of oil on the shores of Barangay Navotas. Calapan is a major economic center in the Mimaropa region.

Gariguez, who is also director of the Diocesan Social Action Center of Calapan, is seeking more concrete aid plans from the government as worries over the sustainability of the current assistance have surfaced.

“Even before the spill reached Calapan, we had been one with the entire province of Oriental Mindoro in responding to the needs of the communities. But we can only do so much,” the priest said, adding that the government was moving but not fast enough.

“Half a month has passed and the remote operating vehicle has not arrived until next week,” he said.

The immediate need is to identify who would compensate the affected residents and pay for the environmental damage to VIP, he added.

“In the long run, policymakers should not just look at oil spills from sunken ships, but also on how to minimize the traffic of ships carrying poisonous cargo through this vulnerable area,” he said.

Fisherfolk worried

The oil spill is expected to affect 180,000 residents of Oriental Mindoro, including fisherfolk from the municipalities of Naujan, Pola and Pinamalayan, among others.

Fishermen from the neighboring province of Batangas are now worried about the livelihood support and government response as the slick may spread to the MIMAROPA region.

“It is not only the oil spill that we are frightened about but also the kind of assistance that we expect to get,” said Maximo Bayubay, external vice president of Bukluran ng Mangingisda ng Batangas.

Think-tank Center for Energy, Ecology, and Development and Protect VIP recently deployed a team to survey the affected areas in Oriental Mindoro.

It found that the fishing ban imposed in the aftermath of the spill has a widespread effect on the economy of Oriental Mindoro.

“There must be decisive action to minimize the impact and demand accountability from the charterer and shipowner, which seems to be heading towards a bailout based on how the Senate hearing last week went,” said Gerry Arances, executive director of CEED.

The VIP is a source of food, livelihood, and other benefits for over two million people.

Recognized as the center of global shore-fish biodiversity, it is also home to charismatic species such as whale sharks, sea turtles, nudibranchs, and an impressive array of corals.

Clean up progressing

Meanwhile, RDC Reield Marine Services, in a separate statement on Saturday, said operations to contain the oil slick were continuing after it received advice from an independent international oil spill expert, International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Limited.

RDC said tugboats with the appropriate spill response equipment continued to work with the Philippine Coast Guard for at-sea containment and recovery of the floating oil.

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