A slow-moving environmental disaster could occur in a marine habitat home to some of the world’s most endangered species, including critically endangered hawksbill turtles, whale sharks, immense manta rays and dugongs.
Recently, the MT Princess Empress sunk while carrying 800,000 litres of oil near the Philippine island of Oriental Mindoro, a fishing ground for two million people.
As a result, the slick has spread across 155 miles of sea and now affects three provinces, causing thousands of fishermen to lose their livelihoods and putting over 20 marine protected areas at risk. On Monday, with the help of the US Navy, operations to recover the vessel and attempt to stop the leak began.
The Coast Guard has tried to contain the spill with booms made of grass and coconut materials. However, environmentalists say more must be done to effectively clean up affected areas and prevent future disasters by punishing polluters.
According to experts from the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute (MSI), oil might damage up to 88 thousand acres of the marine area as recovery efforts continue.
It’s been estimated that 60% of the oil that has reached 12 nearby coastal communities in Oriental Mindoro had been cleared by skimmer boats and booms; however, it was initially thought that 35-50 thousand litres were leaking out per day, 15-20 days until it emptied out – MSI has challenged this information.
On top of that, there’s fear that this tragedy might have a great economic impact: 170 thousand people from beachfront villages are affected, and 17 thousand fishermen are not able to make a living since officials issued a temporary fishing ban – amounting to a loss of 5 million Philippine pesos daily.
The government hasn’t done enough yet; no punitive decision has been made or any policy reforms put in place one month after it happened, according to Gerry Arances from the Center for Energy, Ecology & Development (CEED).
The Verde Island Passage should be included in the country’s system of protected areas, he suggested; as it is an important breeding ground for native species whose populations might decrease due to contaminated waters, he argued.
Additionally, mangroves on nearby coasts help with mitigating coastal erosion while playing an important role in carbon sequestration – something which puts communities at risk when catastrophic weather events such as typhoons affect the Philippines.
The environmental disaster triggered an inquiry by the Senate after allegations surfaced that the MT Princess Empress was operating without a permit. The Minister of Justice, Jesus Crispin Remulla, has also called for criminal charges about the spill and said the government was preparing a case against the vessel’s operators.
When contacted by CNN, RDC Reield Marine Services, owners and operators of the yacht declined to confirm if it was licensed to operate. During a Senate hearing, it was revealed that the Department of Justice is investigating the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) for allowing the vessel to sail without valid documentation.
Campaigner Jefferson Chua from Greenpeace Philippines noted that local communities are demanding clarity about the extent of damage caused by the oil spill and accountability from those responsible.
He added that it’s impossible to clean up oil spills thoroughly – some remains will always be left behind in this area, one of the country’s largest marine biodiversity sites. He urged the government not to resist pressure from major oil companies and marine agencies. Instead, he launched a federal investigation into due diligence failures throughout the maritime sector.
Cleanup efforts are taking time and costing fishers money. Many are being deployed to help with activities in exchange for compensation under a government scheme; $1.5 million (84.4 million Philippine pesos) was initially set aside for 14,000 participants but extended until May.
Jennifer Cruz, mayor of Pola, an area greatly affected by this incident, reported that compensation is insufficient to cover people’s usual daily wage despite buckets and shovels being inadequate for collecting oil from damaged shorelines.
Response teams from Japan, South Korea, and the USA have been sent over with specialized equipment, which is not normally available in the Philippines, to assist PCG with cleanup operations.
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr hoped the cleanup would be done within four months. However, Chua believes this is highly unlikely due to a lack of preparation beforehand, leading response efforts into dragging on much longer than expected – “we’re seeing now it’s bigger than everyone thinks”.
He concluded by saying although progress has been made in this regard, long-term effects are only becoming more apparent as time goes on, affecting those living near damaged shorelines.
Reference: Albany Herald, CNN
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