Retrieval of sunken oil tanker in Mindoro ongoing to avert ‘environmental catastrophe’

BY

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) said Wednesday, March 1, that it has prepositioned all of its available assets to help in the retrieval of motor tanker (MT) Princess Empress which sank off Naujan, Oriental Mindoro while carrying 800,000 liters of industrial fuel oil as cargo.

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Rear Admiral Armando Balilo, PCG spokesperson, said BRP Melchora Aquino, a 97-meter multi-role response vessel, and tugboat Titan were deployed in the area with sonar and oil spill boom while the Coast Guard Aviation Force conducted aerial inspection in the area to pinpoint the location where MT Princess Empress capsized on Feb. 28 and prevent the oil spillage from spreading. 

The motor tanker sank 11 nautical miles from the municipal waters of Naujan, affecting the livelihood of the fishing community there, but its exact location underwater was not determined yet.

So far, the oil spill involving the diesel oil of the motor tanker already spread into the municipal waters of Naujan, particularly at Balingawan Point, with an estimated area of six kilometers long and four kilometers wide from the initial observation of five km long and 500 meters wide on Tuesday. 

“Wala pang pangamba o panganib na madudulot ito sa yamang-dagat doon sa kabuuan ng incident area pero ang pinangangambahan ay kapag tumagas ‘yung industrial fuel oil. Ito ‘yung malapot kaya magiging problema ito (There is no threat yet to the marine resources in the incident area but what’s feared is if the industrial fuel oil spills. This is the sticky oil so it will be a problem),” Balilo said in a radio interview with dzBB.

Balilo said the diesel fuel can easily dissipate under the heat of sun or when hit by big waves because its particles are thin. Industrial fuel oil is different because its particles are thick and can harm fish, coral reef, and other marine resources.

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The industrial fuel oil are cargoes onboard the MT Princess Empress which also sank underwater when the tanker’s engine overheated after being hit by huge waves while sailing off Naujan. The tanker was traveling from Bataan to Iloilo when it encountered bad weather around 2 a.m Tuesday.

“Kailangan pong tanggalin siya kasi anytime ito ay tatagas at magiging environmental catastrophe (We need to remove it [industrial fuel oil] because it can spill anytime which can lead to an environmental catastrophe),” Balilo stressed. 

Lessons from Guimaras oil spill

Balilo said they already have the capability and experience to respond to massive oil spill incidents after the 2006 Guimaras oil spill. It can be recalled that MT Solar 1 sank off the coast of Guimaras on Aug. 11, 2006 which resulted to an oil spillage of more than 2.1 million liters of bunker fuel.

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“Kung nakita natin ang barko, ang plano is hahatakin ito malapit at isasadsad. Kung kaya sa port, dadalhin para masipsip ang krudo. Ang problema wala na tayong makita, ang pwede na lang gawin mag-abang ng oil spill at makipag-usap sa company kung may salvage operation na gagawin (If only we have seen the ship, our plan is to tow it near the shore and ground it. If possible, we can bring it to the port so we can suck the crude oil. The problem is that we can no longer see it, and what we can only do now is to wait for an oil spill and talk to the company if there is a salvage operation),” he said.

The shipping company of MT Princess Empress, RDC Reield Marine Services, Inc., is leading the retrieval operations for the sunken motor tanker while the PCG is assisting them. The shipping company also contracted a towing company, Malayan Towage, to assess the oil spillage in the area.

“Mayroon naman silang arrangement sa salvage companies, mayroon silang oil spill response pero nandyaan din ang PCG at tinatap naming ang mga kumpanya ng langis na may oil spill response para pagtulung-tulungan na (They have an arrangement with salvage companies, they also have an oil spill response but the PCG is there and we already tapped oil companies with oil spill response capabilities to help),” Balilo said.

If worse comes to worst, Balilo said they can ask for assistance from other countries where they teamed up for oil spill response exercises in the past like Japan and Indonesia.

“Kung talagang masayadong malaki, maging karatig-bansa tumutulong kung talagang ‘di masawata. Pero sa tingin ko naman ay handa tayo at hopefully ang preparation namin ay maayos at enough (If it [oil spill] is really massive, even neighboring countries can help if we cannot really suppress it. But I think we are prepared and hopefully our preparation is orderly and enough),” he noted.

The PCG will also investigate if there is negligence on the part of the shipping company so appropriate charges could be filed.

Meanwhile, the 20 crew members of MT Princess Empress have been brought to Subic, Zambales by MV Efes, a foreign vessel which rescued them, so they can be given appropriate medical attention.

Residents of Naujan were also advised by the PCG to keep their distance from the municipal waters due to the possible hazards posed by the oil spillage to their health and livelihood.