On February 28, 2023, the MT Princess Empress capsized while it was carrying 900,000 liters of industrial fuel, resulting in an oil spill impacting Mindoro, Antique, Palawan, Batangas, and the waters of the biodiverse Verde Island Passage (VIP). Exactly a month since, the oil spill continues to wreak havoc on lives above and below our seas.
We, a collective of concerned and affected stakeholders, are very alarmed by the inadequate level of response afforded to this disaster. While government agencies have been taking action, it does not seem to be the prompt and coordinated response needed by this oil spill which is already a disaster of national and international proportions.
A tragedy of this scale - one that directly affects an estimated 36,000 families whose lives and livelihoods are interwoven into the health of our seas - must be met with the greatest possible action and highest standard for accountability of all involved actors. A month on, we are instead forced to call attention to the following:
With transparency on the oil spill response and investigations remaining elusive, there is no assurance that responsible agencies exhausted all effort to urgently contain the spill and remove oil remaining inside the tanker to allow for the least possible damage to communities and marine and coastal ecosystems. The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) waited three weeks since the sinking of MT Princess Empress for the shipowner to deploy a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV), which was later on reported as capable only of documenting the tanker and not of plugging and siphoning remaining oil. According to PCG, another vessel from Singapore needs to be contracted to do this. The PCG recently raised its operation status to Tier 3, which means that the spills are “broader in scale and scope” and require national and international resources. Given the proximity to marine protected areas of the VIP–the richest marine habitat in the world–and coastal communities of MIMAROPA, Western Visayas, and CALABARZON, the response should have been at the necessary speed and scale from the onset. Each day of the past month, the tanker leaked tens of thousands of liters of oil into our seas. Oil recovery is now even more urgent as pictures of the ROV reveal that the tanker is showing numerous cracks as it continues to yield to immense underwater pressure.
Failure to effectively and immediately contain the spill resulted in oil slick reaching more and more municipalities in and beyond Oriental Mindoro, leading to more livelihood displacements, food security worries, and health impacts. Over 200 residents across affected areas have reported health problems such as dizziness, chest pain, breathing problems, and fever. As oil pollution worsens, disruption of the livelihoods of workers in the fisheries, tourism and adjacent sectors is also prolonged. Without long-term and sustained support and alternative livelihood, affected communities are forced to rely on relief goods and financial assistance, with fears over their adequacy. Cash for work programs have been implemented, but these are inevitably limited and inherently are a disservice to affected communities who are rightfully entitled to compensation as they lose their livelihoods to the polluting activities of the tanker, oil charterer, and owner.
Affected communities and concerned groups have yet to gain confidence in government-led efforts to ensure that companies at fault for the oil spill - particularly RDC Reield Marines Services, Inc., San Miguel Corporation Shipping and Lighterage’s subsidiary SL Harbor Bulk Terminal Corporation, and the owner of the fuel being transported - are held accountable and called to cover costs for containment, mechanical removal of the oil, reparation, and long-term rehabilitation. Silence on any decisive and punitive actions that will be taken against all liable actors also lingers. In the two weeks since the tragedy struck, the government closed off investigations from public scrutiny. It was a media outfit that broke the news that it was a San Miguel Corporation subsidiary that was chartering the tanker. Although more detail on the negligence of the shipowner and government agencies mandated to ensure seaworthiness of the tanker came to light in the senate hearing that followed, the hearing was suspended without a clear, prompt, and consolidated oil spill response. Moreover, grave concerns have been raised over the slow and complicated process in obtaining compensation from the company.
A whole-of-nation approach in determining and implementing solutions to the oil spill and its impacts has yet to be seen, with lacking opportunities or means for the meaningful and safe participation of communities, civil society, and other key stakeholders. Today, citizen-led initiatives abound, bearing proof to the intrinsic capacity of impacted and concerned peoples to protect and fight for our threatened environment and fellow Filipinos. Yet many communities who pursue such efforts are forced to do so unsafely due to the unavailability of protective and other gear, and seemingly insufficient access to information on the oil spill, its impacts, and possible solutions.
The oil spill in the VIP and its surrounding waters is an eye opener to the many-layered negligence suffered by critical marine biodiversity and all who depend on them, yet meaningful discourse over policy reforms needed to protect them and to prevent future spills has yet to come to light. Policy and legal reforms such as imposing strict liability on polluters, banning the transport of highly toxic cargo such as fossil fuels over ecologically sensitive waters, and heightening measures to protect the VIP would work for the long-term benefit and improved resilience of marine and coastal communities and ecosystems. Moreover, it would be of greatest advantage to Filipinos for concerned government agencies to move forward a just transition away from the fossil fuel industry, as its unabated and unchallenged business operations continue to threaten and destroy lives and the environment as illustrated by this oil spill.
Today, we launch SOS: Stop the Oil Spill, Save Our Seas! to jointly call for most urgent action and accountability amid this serious environmental catastrophe. The broad civil society network is composed of non-government organizations, people’s organizations, faith-based groups, lawyers, academe, fisherfolk, youth, experts and advocates who also tirelessly pursue initiatives independently and in coordination with local government units and communities to respond to the oil spill. A month since the oil spill, we call on the government to:
Urgently contain the oil spill and remove the remaining oil inside the tanker, and request the assistance of experts that are capable of urgently assessing the situation of the tanker and responding with the necessary actions to siphon the oil.
Pursue a whole-of-nation approach in determining and implementing solutions to the oil spill and its impacts to affected communities and marine and coastal biodiversity, which would entail effective leadership and transparent action from government, particularly in prevention of further damage, and the meaningful participation of communities, civil society, and other key stakeholders.
Ensure full transparency in the ongoing investigations concerning the culpability of the polluters, starting with the full disclosure of all of the key actors involved: the shipowner, the charterer, the owner of the industrial oil cargo, and the insurer, and the publication of the findings of the investigations of the different agencies.
Initiate all appropriate actions against the polluters–the shipowner and/or insurer, charterer, and owner of the oil–to exact accountability and full compensation for damages to the people and environment and to deter similar incidents in the future. Such damages should be diligently documented and assessed to assist all affected communities and local governments who would be filing claims or actions for compensation, and should already be covered by a cash bond of at least Php 70,000,000 from the polluters according to the Revised Rules on Prevention, Containment, Abatement, and Control of Oil Marine Pollution.
Revise governing laws on oil spill to ensure strict liability of the charterer in instances of oil pollution and the prohibition of the transport of highly toxic cargo such as fossil fuels over ecologically sensitive waters, and integrate the Verde Island Passage into the Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas System.