Philippine marine scientists are warning that the country faces a potentially serious environmental disaster from the Oriental Mindoro oil spill once masses of the black sludge make their way to the Verde Island Passage (VIP) and damage this biodiversity hotspot.
Local governments and agencies such as the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the Philippine Coast Guard are rushing work to prevent harm on the fragile ecosystem of the VIP, the global center for marine biodiversity, as well as other locations south and southwest of the province.
By late Thursday, March 16, the first oil slicks from the 800,000 liters of industrial fuel carried by the MT Princess Empress which sank on Feb. 28 off Pola town, had reached the shores of Barangay Navotas in Calapan City, the provincial capital directly across from Verde Island.
The tanker has been found at a depth of nearly 390 meters in the Tablas Strait, about 14 kilometers off Pola.
Pola and the adjacent town of Naujan are the worst hit by the oil spill.
On Friday, two other Calapan coastal villages—Maidlang and Silonay—reported oil on their shores.
The University of the Philippines-Marine Science Institute (UP MSI) predicted five days earlier that the spilled oil would be carried by ocean currents toward the VIP as the northeast monsoon winds, or amihan, which had held it back since the sinking, were weakening.
Center of the global center
Assuming that the wind direction and velocity, and ocean current and a seepage rate of 100 barrels per day are unchanged, most of the oil from the sunken tanker would continue to flow toward Naujan and Pola, but some of it would be swept toward Calapan, Puerto Galera, Verde Island and parts of Batangas, said UP MSI professor Irene Rodriguez.
She said the VIP is recognized as “the center of the [global] center of marine biodiversity” based on its vast number of species of marine flora and fauna.
“There are so many species concentrated there; a lot of them are still to be identified, and some are only found in that area. That is why it is so important,” she said in an interview with CoverStory.ph.
That passage between Mindoro and Batangas is a top breeding and nursery ground for fish found in the Philippine archipelago. “A big portion of our fish catch comes from there or passes through there,” Rodriguez added.
UP MSI said the VIP is home to endangered and threatened species, including hawksbill turtles, whale sharks, manta rays, dugongs and giant clams.
According to the Protect Verde Island Passage network, more than 2 million people, including fishers and tourism workers, depend on that narrow body of water for their livelihood.
The Guimaras example
What harm will the oil bring to these areas?
The Guimaras oil spill in 2006, still considered the worst such disaster in the country, provides a graphic example of what could happen to both the marine environment and the people.
In August 2016, the oil tanker Solar 1 spilled nearly all of its cargo of 2.1 million liters of bunker oil after it capsized in a storm south of Guimaras. By the end of a 21-day operation to siphon the remaining cargo from the sunken tanker in April 2007, only 9 cubic meters or 9,000 liters of oil had been recovered.
According to Sen. Cynthia Villar, who opened an inquiry into the Oriental Mindoro oil spill two weeks after the accident, the Guimaras incident affected 1,500 hectares of mangroves, seagrass and coral reefs, and “ruined the livelihood” of 20,000 fishers.
“Compared to Guimaras, the current figures show that the Oriental Mindoro oil spill is emerging to have more extensive effects,” Villar said during the March 14 hearing of the committee on environment which she heads.
She said past and current experience indicated that this oil spill would “definitely adversely affect” the marine ecosystem and biodiversity, fisheries and food supplies, and the livelihood and health of the people.
“It is an understatement to say that this is distressing news for the country. For one, this oil spill incident is a setback on our ongoing efforts to strengthen our ecosystem and mend our fragile biodiversity,” she said, adding that tourism would suffer.
She also said the rehabilitation of Guimaras took a long time.
Sen. Francis Tolentino, quoting the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation, said it would take one to two years for affected beaches to recover from an oil spill, one to three years for rocky shores, three to five years for salt marshes and 10 years for mangroves.
Health and livelihood
On Friday, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) reported that 32,056 families or 147,247 individuals were affected by the oil spill in 126 barangays in Oriental Mindoro and the other provinces of Antique and Palawan.
It said the livelihood of 13,654 fishers, including a small number engaged in aquaculture, were affected.
The local governments report that fishing had practically stopped in the affected communities.
Pola Mayor Jennifer Cruz reported that 196 residents had fallen ill from exposure to the oil, with symptoms such as dizziness, vomiting, headache, chest pain, asthma attacks, difficulty in breathing, skin rashes, diarrhea, sore throat, and itchy skin and eyes.
UP MSI said as many as 20,000 hectares of coral reefs, 9,900 hectares of mangrove and 6,000 hectares of seagrass in Oriental and Occidental Mindoro, Antique and Palawan could be affected by the gooey asphalt-like industrial fuel.
In Palawan, the island town of Agutaya has over 2,500 hectares of coral reefs and 73 hectares of seagrass in the path of the oil slick, as are 3,661 hectares of coral reefs, 12 hectares of mangroves and 156 hectares of seagrass in the island town of Cuyo.
Nine municipalities in Oriental Mindoro, excluding Calapan (as of Saturday), and Palawan’s Taytay town each declared a state of calamity after their shorelines were smeared in oil.
2 main tasks
“We really have a very narrow window of time to do what we need to do,” said UP MSI’s Rodriguez, citing the two main tasks—stopping the leak and removing the oil from the submerged tanker, and containing what has seeped out.
Stopping the leak requires an underwater remotely operated vehicle (ROV) with “arms” that can drill holes into the cargo hold to siphon off the remaining oil.
In Guimaras, two ROVs were used to punch two holes into the Solar 1—one to push water in and the other to let the oil out in a controlled manner.
However, if the industrial fuel oil cargo of the Princess Empress is more viscous than the bunker oil carried by Solar 1, it would be harder to suck out, Rodriguez said.
There is still no word from the government on when an ROV would arrive from abroad.
Rodriguez said one quick way of getting rid of the oil is to burn it on site to prevent it from reaching the shores. This has been done in some countries that handled similar oil spills, but the Clean Air Act may not allow it, she said.
“In situ” burning entails collecting relatively small portions of the oil and igniting them far away from the shore and shipping lanes.
Whatever cannot be burned will be collected using booms and skimmers, but this would largely depend on the condition of the sea—specifically wave height and wind strength. Chemical dispersants can be used to break down the slick.
The DENR said that of the oil that had leaked so far, 9% had been lost to evaporation, 70% had mixed with water or had emulsified, and the rest remained untouched.
Emulsification results in a bigger volume of oil debris, which makes it spread easier but improves evaporation just by exposure to the sun.
Some of the emulsified oil, however, can draw particles on the water surface that can weigh it down and cause it to sink to the sea floor.
The resulting coat of oil on corals, sediments and sand will become part of the marine ecosystem until it is removed, manually or through normal weathering, which will take years. Oil on the surface of reefs will block the nutrient transport system for polyps that give life to the corals.
“There is a possible big impact on mangroves and seagrasses,” Rodriguez said. “They are very important in our carbon sequestration in managing our CO2 (carbon dioxide) problem and climate change.”
Mangroves and seagrasses are also very important breeding and nursery grounds and habitats for marine organisms.
Rodriguez said there were extensive fishing grounds and “very many” marine protected areas in Oriental Mindoro. Villar said there were 21 in all.
“This [oil spill] can potentially impact a lot of these in our environment. So, we hope that we can contain this very close to the point source so that it would not spread and reach our coasts,” Rodriguez said.
Seagrasses have important roles in the coastal ecosystem, she pointed out. Their elaborate root system prevents coastal soil erosion and they contribute to photosynthesis.
“They are the food choice of so many marine organisms and the habitats of many shell fishes and also fish,” she said. “Our coral reefs thrive because the majority of the sediments and excess nutrients are filtered by seagrasses.”
Final user undisclosed
Fuel oil consists mainly of residue from crude oil distillation and is used primarily for steam boilers in power plants on ships and industrial plants.
The Princess Empress was headed to Iloilo from Limay, Bataan, but the final user of its cargo has not been publicly disclosed.
Villar, quoting a report from the Maritime Industry Authority or Marina, the government shipping regulator, said the Princess Empress had no permit to operate. But the Coast Guard showed reporters a document indicating that it had.
Rear Adm. Armand Balilo, the Coast Guard spokesperson, said they will investigate the certificate of public convenience that it received from the owner of the tanker, RDC Reield Marine Services Inc., which used it in prior trips to Manila, Cebu, Misamis Oriental and Iloilo.
Balilo told CoverStory.ph, that a broader investigation is underway and would include getting statements from the crew of 20 who were all rescued by a passing vessel as the tanker floundered in rough seas. They are now in the “custody” of the shipping company, he said.
For Rodriguez, prevention of an oil spill at sea, especially in a biodiversity hotspot such as the VIP and Tablas Strait, is ideal in the long term. She said UP MIS scientists are considering making a “proposition” to the authorities to change the shipping rules or impose restrictions on those two busy shipping lanes.
“We can prevent disasters depending on the time of year and prevailing wind direction,” she said, adding that the government could allow only certain types of vessels to use the VIP and Tablas Strait on specific months, in accordance with, among others, the onset of the typhoon season.
She cited other considerations, such as the size of the vessels, and whether they are passenger ships or fuel tankers, or single- or double-hulled.
What PH needs
“We need … an act or executive order to protect the Verde Island Passage and to declare it a protected area,” Rodriguez said. “We need an improvement in the way we run this industry.”
To prevent future oil spills, proper implementation of shipping guidelines should be implemented, including checks on vessel seaworthiness, and the capacity of the crew—whether they have updated knowhow and undergo constant training, especially in managing stressful conditions or these types of incidents.
She said it would be ideal if local governments were capacitated to respond “right away” to oil spills and if the Coast Guard had the right equipment—more vessels, booms, rescuers, ROVs, etc.—for responding to such emergencies.
“Being an archipelagic country, we need to put resources, we need to put money where it is needed. As an archipelagic country, we need these types of capabilities,” Rodriguez said. “And we need more marine scientists.”