On February 28, a fuel tanker carrying 800,000 liters of industrial oil capsized off the coast of Oriental Mindoro. An ecological nightmare unfolded in the days that followed.
Protect VIP vehemently decries the devastation that the oil spill from MT Princess Empress has and will continue to bring to waters within and beyond the Verde Island Passage (VIP) - the biodiversity hotspot known to have the highest concentration of marine species in the world. Latest estimates reveal that over 36,000 hectares of mangroves, coral reefs, and seagrasses will potentially be affected, with reports showing that oil from the yet to be located vessel has already reached the Visayan province of Antique, with fears of it going further south.
We are gravely concerned for impacted communities. Seemingly overnight, at least 18,000 fisherfolk in Oriental Mindoro alone have been robbed of their livelihood as fishing activities are forcibly put on hold. Residents are also robbed of their seafood supply - a heavy blow for a province in which over 50% of households already suffer various levels of food insecurity. We thus join local residents in lamenting what would be a prolonged suffering of the local fishing industry - valued at Php 11.80 billion across the 5 provinces of VIP in 2021 - as impacts of the oil spill are expected to be felt for years to come.
The tourism sector, which raked in Php 3.5 billion for the province of Oriental Mindoro alone in 2019, is also faced with severe disruption. Local tourism workers and provincial revenue are bound to suffer billions in losses with the oil spill occurring just as summer, in which tourist arrivals often peak, approaches.
The injustice suffered by communities from this terrible incident is further amplified by health impacts they are likely to experience. Due to the toxicity of oil, spills in the past have been known to cause severe health problems such as respiratory problems, heart damage, stunted growth, immune system effects, and even death among exposed communities.
We call on the Philippine government for most urgent action to contain the spill, assess the severity of damage, and prioritize the welfare of impacted communities who must receive livelihood support and protection from health impacts. We also demand accountability from the owner of MT Princess Empress, RDC Reield Marines Services, and the fuel supply it contains. We are concerned that amidst all this chaos, there remains no confirmation as to who the owner of the industrial oil is. In transporting a highly polluting substance across the Verde Island Passage and its surrounding waters, these companies deliberately cruise through and place at risk fragile marine ecosystems and the livelihood of all who depend on them. A public investigation should be conducted immediately to determine the cause of this harrowing incident and the actors behind it, and hold these polluters to account for every negligence made. It is only right that these companies deliver reparation to communities and shoulder environmental rehabilitation requirements.
Moreover, this incident serves as an eye opener to the neglect the Verde Island Passage has long suffered despite its socioeconomic and ecological significance. This is not the first time that a vessel carrying highly polluting fuels leaked its contents into the VIP’s waters, yet no sufficient measure is in place that could have prevented this latest oil spill from occurring or causing as massive a devastation as it already has. Meanwhile, a plethora of even more heavy industry development is planned around the VIP area - especially fossil fuel power plants and LNG terminals which would receive shipped cargoes of liquefied natural gas or LNG. More plans for LNG terminals means more shipping vessels passing through the marine corridor. This increases the possibility of a similar situation happening in the future.
The Verde Island Passage must be afforded no less than the greatest protection due to a global treasure for marine biodiversity.
We are in a race against time to stop even worse destruction in the lives of local communities and critical marine and coastal life. Protect and address needs of impacted communities and the Verde Island Passage! Action and accountability, now!
FR. EDWIN GARIGUEZ