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Oil spill continuously threatening the Verde Island Passage

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THE Philippine government, particularly the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC), the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), was rushing on daily basis to contain the spread of an oil spill from a tanker that sank at the Verde Island Passage (VIP), considered the “center of the center” of marine biodiversity in the central Philippines.

Last Friday, Admiral Artemio Abu, commandant of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), joined a surveillance overflight in the vicinity of waters off Naujan, in Oriental Mindoro province, where the MT Princess Empress sank earlier last week with a cargo of 800,000 liters of industrial fuel. All of its crew of 20 were successfully rescued.

The coast guard said it spotted an oil spill measuring 2 to 3 kilometers (1.2 to 1.9 miles) long.

PCG spokesperson Rear Adm. Armand Balilo said the government had designated the affected coastal towns of Naujan, Pola, Pinamalayan, and Bongabong as “exclusion areas” due to health threats from the spill. Apart from being a threat to marine life, the environmental disaster could threaten the fishermen in the area where fishing is people’s primary livelihood. 

“We have imposed an exclusion [zone]. It means there are areas that cannot be accessed because it would be dangerous and may affect the health of individuals,” Balilo said in an interview with dzBB radio in Manila.

The epicenter of the tragedy is within the bounds of Verde Island Passage. The passage which is the 1.14 million hectare passage that separates the islands of Luzon and Mindoro, connecting the South China Sea with the Tayabas Bay and the Sibuyan Sea beyond.

It is recognized as the center of global shore-fish biodiversity and provides food and livelihoods for over 2 million people, according to Conservation International Philippines, an NGO. 

The ill-fated tanker sank to a depth of 400 meters (1,312 feet), making it difficult for the divers to reach the ship, Balilo said. Strong waves in the area were also hampering the mission, as authorities scrambled to set up oil spill booms to contain the spread.

The coast guard was carrying on with an assessment of the shoreline in Barangay Bacawan, Pola Oriental Mindoro as well as the cleanup of oil sludge on the beach, Balilo said.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said the government was working with the International Maritime Organization and the Department of Interior and Local Government and was ready to provide support to the local government.

“The government, through the Department of Social Workand Development (DSWD), is prepared to provide various forms of assistance tofamilies and individuals affected by the oil spill caused by the submerged MT Princess Empress in Oriental Mindoro,” he said in a statement.

“We are closely monitoring the situation with the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) as the lead agency. Special attention will be given to the affected fisherfolks who will be losing their source of livelihood because of the oil spill.” 

Last Saturday, march 4, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) District Western Visayas reported that the oil spill has already reached Caluya, Antique. It was monitored on the shorelines of Barangays Tinigboc, Sibolo and Semirara. According to the LGU report, at least 150 families composed of more or less 600 individuals are affected in Liwagao Island.

Meanwhile, the DENR was warning of threats to 21 locally managed marine protected areas.

“The spill appears to be flowing southwards towards the southern part of Oriental Mindoro,” Environment Secretary Toni Yulo-Loyzaga said in a video message Thursday.

A study by the DENR’s Biodiversity Management Bureau said that seagrass beds, mangroves, and dispersion pathways for spawned fish larvae were at potential risk. DENR personnel were now focused on coastal clean-up, because possible contamination could affect the viability of these marine ecosystems, officials said.

Loyzaga said authorities were also collecting water samples in 12 sites and spraying dispersants at the spill.

Environmental groups called on the government to speed up operations, warning that the already threatened Verde Island Passage was at further risk. 

“We are calling on the government to expedite clean-up operations to minimize the damage and allow the people who depend on the riches of the sea to resume their normal activities,” Father Edwin Gariguez, convenor of the Protect Verde Island Passage cam-paign network, said on Wednesday.

“Fish may experience reduced growth and the turbid waters will make it harder for seagrasses and corals to grow,” he said. “Potential fish kills due to the oil spill may cause lesser fish stock out of the already dwindling fish catch.”

The DENR has created a task force to address the problem. Undersecretary Marilou Erni was appointed as task force commander, having served as the corporate ground response coordinator during the Guimaras oil spill in 2006, the worst spill the country has so far recorded.

That occurred in August 2006 when the tanker M/T Solar 1 sank off the coast of the island province of Guimaras, spilling more than 2.1 million liters of bunker fuel.| – BNN – With reports from Benar News

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