Oil residue
Upper Left: Oil residue coated on a rock along the rocky shores of Barangay Puting Cacao, Pola | Upper Right: Oil stains on a bangka in Barangay Misong, Pola | Lower Left: Tar balls found along the shoreline of Barangay Batuhan, Pola; and Lower Right: Oil-covered debris found along the shoreline of Barangay Puting Cacao, Pola.

Statement of Protect VIP ahead of President Marcos’ State of the Nation Address

On the occasion of this year’s State of the Nation Address (SONA), Protect VIP urges the Marcos administration to thoroughly assess and address its lackluster response to the first major environmental disaster confronting it. Nearly marking its fifth month, the oil spill in the Verde Island Passage has so far disrupted livelihoods and well-being of hundreds of thousands, is causing billions in damages, and harms the world’s most biodiverse marine habitat.

We are gravely alarmed by increasing pronouncements of government agencies and bodies, both local and national, to brand this situation as already resolved. Over the last few months, fishing bans were lifted in Oriental Mindoro, leaving Pola, the ground zero of the oil spill, as the last town with an enforced ban. Last July 20, Governor Dolor announced the lifting of the ban in Pola based on recommendations of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR). The Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office of the Province of Oriental Mindoro (PDRRMO) has also sent out invitations for a demobilization ceremony to announce the termination of the oil spill response, even without so much as publishing the final assessment report supposedly conducted by technical experts and representatives from national agencies.

Protect VIP is one with all fisherfolk and adjacent sectors in demanding the return of livelihood and day-to-day normalcy robbed from them by the pollution caused by RDC and its charterer and oil owner, San Miguel Corporation. We are concerned, however, by the lack of transparency on the scientific basis and methodologies employed by the government to order such lifting of fishing bans. It was over a month ago since the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) last published a situational report, which still found oil and grease, hydrogen sulfide, and volatile organic compounds in Pola. As for the BFAR, its water quality tests are not substantiated by published reports that would establish the conduct of a robust quantitative test. BFAR’s oil spill bulletin does not show the comprehensive results of water testing in terms of oil and grease for water quality assessment and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) in fish samples. The presence of PAHs, some of which are carcinogenic, is of significant concern: they can bioaccumulate in fish and cause harm if consumed over a prolonged period of time.

In fact, a rapid water quality assessment conducted by Protect VIP this past week in six marine protected areas (MPAs) in Pinamalayan ang Pola revealed that five of them exceeded water quality guidelines for oil and grease in protected areas. Oil residue and tar balls are also still visible, such as on the rocky shores of Barangay Puting Cacao in Pola which is near the St. John the Baptist Reserve MPA and the sandy beaches of Sitio Kabilang Ibayo in Barangay, Batuhan. The interconnectivity of marine life and spillover of fish stock suggests that the quality of these MPAs can greatly influence neighboring water bodies as they serve as sanctuaries and nesting grounds. Water and fish stock flow freely across water bodies and can be influenced by the high presence of oil and grease.

These results lead us to question if the motivation behind the lifting of bans and similar efforts to conclude oil spill responses are genuinely in the service of returning the livelihood of fisherfolk, or is a hasty and dangerous decision made to provide the Marcos administration means to claim a superficial success in its oil spill response efforts. With the latter, the authorities whose duty is to prioritize the plight of fisherfolk and the consuming public are instead doing them a grave injustice by risking their health. When small or large amounts of crude oil or distilled oil like gasoline or diesel or industrial fuel are ingested or inhaled, it can cause immediate to long-term complications. Exposure can affect sight and smell, cause difficulty in breathing, cough and chest pains, and may result in other illnesses, including cancer.

Fisherfolk and affected communities should not be made to choose between risking their health by fishing in contaminated waters and not making a living. They, in the first place, are owed urgent and proper compensation from the loss of their livelihood and other socioeconomic impacts. In the aftermath of the oil spill, the Koalisyon ng mga Mangingisdang Apektado ng Oil Spill (KMAOS) called for a compensation of a minimum Php 500/day for the deprivation of fisherfolk and other affected workers’ livelihoods. With approximately 24,698 affected fisherfolk in the three regions and nearly five months since the wake of the oil spill, the total debt owed by polluters to fisherfolk would already amount to a massive Php 1,296,645,000. This is a conservative figure, considering the millions in damages incurred in boats, fish pens, and other equipment used for aquaculture and fishing that should also be paid to them. To put this amount in perspective, the latest situational report of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council last July 22, a total of Php 777,934,048 worth of assistance were provided to CALABARZON, MIMAROPA, and Western Visayas.

Absent full transparency on the situational assessments and monitoring conducted by the relevant government agencies which show robust and grounded science and allow for public scrutiny, the people cannot be expected to rally behind premature pronouncements of lifting fish bans and terminating oil spill response.

There is no victory for the administration to claim. The delivery of long overdue compensation at a proper valuation for oil spill victims has yet to be made. There is zero accountability from polluters like RDC Reield Marines Services, Inc. and San Miguel Corporation and irresponsible authorities that contributed to this crisis. Even as talks of terminating the oil spill response are underway, a proposed comprehensive rehabilitation plan with corresponding budget has not been publicly discussed. Meanwhile, there remains no meaningful long-term policy and legal reforms to afford the VIP and its dependents the protection it deserves as the Amazon of the oceans – such as revising the Oil Pollution Compensation Act to ensure full accountability and more stringent penalties for all polluters, and including the VIP in the Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas System Act (ENIPAS) and application for World Heritage Site.

As the President’s first year in office concludes, we challenge the Marcos administration not to prove itself as a government that settles for hollow wins in the oil spill crisis while condemning affected peoples to suffering and turning a blind eye to the ailing health of the VIP.

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