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10 days, zero accountability: Oil spill-affected communities lament radio silence of responsible parties

Protect VIP

Protect VIP, a coalition of environmentalists, communities, fisherfolk, and other sectors that seek to protect the Verde Island Passage (VIP), on Friday questioned the radio silence of the company responsible for the oil spill that is now threatening the biodiversity of the marine corridor.

MT Princess Empress, carrying 800,000 liters of industrial oil, sank in the waters off Naujan, Oriental Mindoro, causing a massive oil spill that caused the provincial government to declare a state of calamity for 77 coastal barangays.

“It’s been 10 days since the sinking and we have yet to hear anyone from the company that owns the ship or the cargo to explain their side. The oil spill has affected some 10,362 families or 48,885 individuals who are left in the dark on who should they ask reparations from,” said Fr. Edwin Gariguez, Protect VIP Convenor.

The owner of RDC Reield Marine Services, the company of the sunken vessel MT Princess Empress, is yet to face the public, especially the communities in Oriental Mindoro.

“In 10 days, over 18,000 fishermen are unable to fish; 36,000 hectares of mangroves, coral reefs, and fields of seagrass are threatened; and more than 50 residents of Pola report fever and allergies. The Mayor of Pola Jennifer Cruz has also reported prices of goods and other basics have also increased and with the current situation of their livelihoods, this is a big blow to the people of Oriental Mindoro. I think that deserves at least one spokesperson to come out and say something on the record,” he added.

The Center for Energy, Ecology, and Development (CEED), a sustainability think-tank and member of the Protect VIP Network, deployed a team to survey the affected areas. It found that the no-fishing ban imposed in the aftermath of the spill is causing widespread effects on the economy of Oriental Mindoro.

“The fishing sector in the VIP area, which includes Oriental Mindoro, was valued at ₱11.8 billion in 2021. The impact is felt more than just by the fisherfolks. This trickles down to other sectors including tourism which in 2019 generated ₱3.5 billion. Even ordinary people who own sari-sari stores, tricycle drivers who transport tourists, and resort workers have their livelihoods on pause now as their waters are poisoned by the oil spill,” said Gerry Arances, Executive Director of CEED.

“Soon, the whole nation will feel the impact of this oil spill. The Marine Science Institute of the University of the Philippines said that the spill can spread further. Our economy can ill afford the loss of a whole sector’s revenue at a time when we are trying to recover from the pandemic. There must be decisive action to minimize the impact, and someone has to come out and take the responsibility for this,” added Arances.

Both houses of Congress now have pending resolutions for an inquiry into the incident, along with a bill proposing stiffer penalties for oil spills. Cash and food assistance have been released to residents, but they worry that the aid will not last for the duration of the crisis.

“The government is moving, but it has to do more than give band-aid solutions. In the short term, we need to identify who would compensate the affected residents and pay for the environmental damage to VIP. In the long run, our policymakers should not just look at oil spills from sunken ships, but also how to minimize the traffic of ships carrying poisonous cargo through this vulnerable area. And more importantly, the government should also enact legal protection for VIP because it is unthinkable that such a globally important marine corridor is left exposed to disasters like this,” said Gariguez.

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