MT Princess Empress: A sunken oil tanker is threatening biodiversity in the Philippines. And it could take months to contain
A slow-moving environmental catastrophe is unfolding in a marine ecosystem home to some of the world’s rarest species, including the critically endangered hawksbill turtle, as well as whale sharks, giant manta rays and dugongs.
It has been more than a month since the MT Princess Empress, carrying 800,000 liters (211,340 gallons) of industrial fuel, capsized near the Philippine island province of Oriental Mindoro – a rich fishing ground that provides food and livelihood to more than two million people.
Aided by a Japanese response team, Philippine maritime authorities located the wreck on March 21, but the vessel remains underwater and there are concerns oil continues to leak out, though precisely how much remains unknown.
The Philippine Coast Guard told CNN on Wednesday its teams “cannot substantiate or quantify ongoing oil leakage.”
The slick has since stretched across 250 kilometers (155 miles) of sea, polluting the shores of at least three provinces, costing the livelihoods of thousands of fishermen and threatening over 20 marine protected areas.
It was only on Monday, with assistance from the US Navy, that operations began to salvage the vessel and attempt to plug the leakage.
In the aftermath of the initial leak, the Coast Guard raced to clean up the slick and improvised spill booms made from cogon grass and coconut materials were used as floating barriers to contain the oil.
But the effort failed to stem the tide and campaigners say more needs to be done to contain the spill, remove oil from affected areas, and protect against future disasters by taking punitive action against polluters.
As much as 36,000 hectares (88,958 acres) of marine area could be affected by the oil slick as recovery efforts drag on, according to the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute.
The Coast Guard estimates cleanup teams have so far removed 60% of the oil that has reached the shores of a dozen towns in Oriental Mindoro, using booms and skimmer vessels.
A previous estimate, made by the Department of Environment and Natural Resource on March 14, suggested the sunken vessel was pumping out between 35,000 to 50,000 liters of oil a day and should be empty after 15 to 20 days, though this information has been contested.
Oil has now spread to the Verde Island Passage, a marine reserve home to dozens of endemic species, said Irene Rodriguez, an associate professor with the Marine Science Institute.
The passage, north of where the tanker sank, has the highest concentration of coastal fishes, corals, crustaceans, molluscs, seagrasses, and mangroves in the archipelagic country, and the spill could lead to long-term damage and declining population of these organisms, says Rodriguez.
“There are quite a number of marine organisms that have not yet been identified and are only present at the Verde Island Passage … and that’s something that we should protect. And hopefully, we do everything that we can to prevent the oil from causing damage in that area,” Rodriguez said.
The Verde Island Passage is particularly important as a breeding ground for native marine species, whose population may decline in the future because they are unable to mate in the polluted waters, Rodriguez said.
Mangroves that line the shores of affected communities prevent coastal erosion and also play a role in carbon sequestration – the process of reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, Rodriguez said.
The lack of protection from mangroves puts locals at risk from extreme weather events, especially typhoons that regularly hit the Philippines, she added.
And there are growing concerns the disaster could have a major, more immediate economic impact too.
According to the country’s National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, more than 170,000 people in shoreline communities have been impacted by the spill, and nearly 17,000 fishermen have lost their incomes after authorities imposed a temporary fishing ban.
The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources estimates the fishing sector is losing $900,000 (5 million Philippine pesos) per day, with potentially months to go before the spill is fully contained.
The Philippines, an archipelago of more than 7,600 islands, has a poor maritime safety record, and oil spills and ferry accidents are not uncommon.
While affected and concerned Filipinos have been proactively engaging in the clean up and containment of the spill, the government has yet to take any punitive decision or action against polluters one month since the catastrophe, said Gerry Arances, executive director at the Center for Energy, Ecology,and Development (CEED).
“To date, there has been no clear effort to assess how badly marine and coastal ecosystems have been affected,” Arances added.
“We have yet to hear of policy reforms to ensure that a tragedy like this will not happen again, one of which would be the inclusion of the Verde Island Passage in the country’s protected areas system,” he said.
The environmental disaster has prompted a Senate probe centered on accusations that the MT Princess Empress operated without a permit.
The country’s justice minister, Jesus Crispin Remulla, has also called for criminal charges over the spill and said the department is building a case against the vessel operator.
RDC Reield Marine Services, the vessel owner and operator, declined to confirm with CNN whether it had license to operate. A senate hearing said that the Department of Justice is investigating the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) for allegedly allowing the vessel to sail without updated paperwork.
Affected communities are also demanding transparency on the extent of damage from the oil spill and accountability from the vessel operator and its owners, said Greenpeace Philippines campaigner Jefferson Chua.
“Oil spills can never be cleaned up properly. There’s always going to be something stuck, something left behind, especially in this area which is one of the largest centers of marine biodiversity in the country,” Chua said.
He urged the government not to give in to pressure from powerful oil companies and marine agencies, calling for a national probe into lapses of due diligence across the maritime sector.
Clearing the oil spill is taking time, and for fishers, it’s also draining their income.
Under a government program, fishers who aren’t able to work are being deployed to join cleanup efforts in exchange for compensation.
The government has allocated more than $1.5 million (84.4 million Philippine pesos) for the scheme, initially intended for 14,000 participants, and it has been extended to May.
However, the compensation is barely enough to cover their usual daily wage, according to Jennifer Cruz, mayor of Pola, one of the heavily affected municipalities in Oriental Mindoro.
And buckets and shovels aren’t enough to remove oil from affected shorelines given the massive scale of the spill.
Response teams from Japan, South Korea and the US are assisting the Philippine Coast Guard with technical expertise and specialty equipment not readily available in the Philippines.
Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said he hopes the clean up can be completed within four months. But Chua said that seems unlikely, as authorities were not equipped to handle the disaster to begin with and response efforts have dragged on.
“Now we’re seeing that it’s bigger than everyone thinks and it’s exploding in the faces of the government officials,” Chua said. “There is some progress [in the cleanup] but the lingering impacts are getting worse for those on the ground.”