Destroyed habitat, lifelong recovery

THE Philippines is an archipelago with a coastline that stretches more than 18,000 kilometers. Its coastal waters cover an area of 266,000 square kilometers where 70 percent of its 1,489 municipalities are in the coastal area. It is the fourth longest coastline in the world. It is home to millions of people for whom the sea is part and parcel of their lives. Imagine the impact of an oil spill! 

This summer will be bad for the beaches and the fisherfolk in Oriental Mindoro, an island province, which covers a total area of 4,238.38 sq km (1,636.45 sq mi). It is the seventh largest island in the country and the eighth most populous island in the Philippines, with 908,339 population, per the 2020 census. The province was the second largest economy in the Mimaropa region from 2018 to 2020. "The economy of Oriental Mindoro is driven by services, which accounted for more than half of the province's total economic output with an annual average share of 50.4 percent from 2018 to 2020. It was followed by industry with 33.6 percent share, and agriculture, forestry and fishing at 16 percent share."

The main sources of income for Oriental Mindoro are agriculture and fishing, except for Puerto Galera, which relies heavily on tourism. Rice farming is highest in Naujan followed by Calapan, with irrigated areas covering 11,348 hectares and 7,043 hectares, respectively.

An oil spill will therefore affect lives that rely on fishing and tourism, as well as the health of residents that live near the shores of areas affected by an oil spill, which does not remain static principally due to the nature of waves. Most kinds of oil are less dense than water, and most spilled oil floats on the water's surface. It spreads out and is pushed across the water by wind and currents.

The cost of an oil spill is considerable in both economic and ecological terms. "Oil on ocean surfaces is harmful to many forms of aquatic life because it prevents enough sunlight from penetrating the surface, and it also reduces the level of dissolved oxygen. Crude oil ruins the insulating and waterproofing properties of feathers and fur, and thus oil-coated birds and marine mammals may die from hypothermia. Moreover, ingested oil can be toxic to affected animals, and damage to their habitat and reproductive rate may slow the long-term recovery of animal populations from the short-term damage caused by the spill itself. Damage to plant life can be considerable as well; saltwater marshes and mangroves are two notable shore ecosystems that frequently suffer from oil spills. If beaches and populated shorelines are fouled, tourism and commerce may be severely affected, as may power plants and other utilities that either draw on or discharge into seawater at the shore. One of the industries most affected by oil spills is fishing. Major oil spills are frequently followed by the immediate suspension of commercial fishing, at the least to prevent damage to vessels and equipment but also to prevent the catch and sale of fish or shellfish that may be contaminated."

With the history of oil spills in the country (14 major ones), the immediate environmental effects have been readily identified, but their long-term impact on the ecological system of an affected area is more difficult to assess. The cost of paying compensation to individuals and communities damaged by oil spills has been a major incentive to reduce the chances of such events taking place in the future. Would a class suit be the right approach to secure the short-term gain for those dislocated and the long-term solution for recovery?

To date, a total of 172,928 individuals have been affected by the oil spill from the sunken MT Princess Empress carrying 800,000 liters of industrial fuel. It is initially estimated that "20,000 hectares of coral reef, 9,900 hectares of mangroves and 6,000 hectares of seagrass may be affected by the oil slick in the earlier identified three municipalities." By March 14, the spill had reached 14 municipalities and one city in Oriental Mindoro; two municipalities in Occidental Mindoro; five municipalities in Palawan; and one in Antique.

As yet, no thoroughly satisfactory method has been developed for cleaning up major oil spills, though the spectacular spills of the last decades of the 20th century "called forth great improvements in technology and in the management of coordinated responses. Essentially, responses to oil spills seek to contain the oil and remove enough of it so that economic activity can resume and the natural recovery processes of the marine environment can take over. Floating booms can be placed around the source of the spill or at entrances to channels and harbors to reduce the spreading of an oil slick over the sea surface. Skimming, a technique that, like the use of booms, is most effective in calm waters, involves various mechanisms that physically separate the oil from the water and place the oil into collection tanks. Another approach is to use various sorbents (e.g., straw, volcanic ash and shavings of polyester-derived plastic) that absorb the oil from the water. Where appropriate, chemical surfactants and solvents may be spread over a slick in order to accelerate its natural dispersion into the sea. Onshore removal of oil that has penetrated sandy beaches and coated rocky shores is a laborious affair, frequently involving small armies of workers wielding hand tools or operating heavy construction-type equipment to scrape up contaminated debris and haul it away."

And we are not even talking of the liabilities of the MT Princess Empress and the highly irregular enforcement of maritime laws on safety, environmental protection and security by the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and Marina on the development, promotion and regulation of the maritime industry. No heads rolled even while anomalies were being unearthed as the congressional bodies conducted their investigations. Transparency and accountability seem to be new words for the PCG. We are truly in a sad state when it comes to enforcement. Either regulatory agencies do not enforce laws or would go beyond what laws mandate, just like the Bureau of Immigration and Deportation.

And nobody is even looking at the Oil Pollution Management Fund created under Republic Act 9483, or the "Oil Pollution Compensation Act of 2007," to get things settled and move to enhanced recovery, mindful of the lives affected by the spill. The saga of the Princess Empress essentially proves to all that, "It's not a matter of if there will be an oil spill, it's when."




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