By Roxanne Omega Doron
March 17, 2023
The MT Princess Empress, which sank in Oriental Mindoro on Feb. 28, 2023, was carrying 800,000 liters of industrial fuel. The oil spill has already affected 77 communities in nine towns, which has now been put under a state of calamity by the provincial government.
According to the Provincial Board Resolution, “the sinking resulted in the spillage of emulsified black and thick industrial oil” and “affected 15,000 fisherfolks, resorts, and other business establishments.”
Media reports, on the other hand, cited as many as 18,000 fisherfolks affected by the disaster. This does not include yet those indirectly affected in the fishing industry’s supply chain.
Oil can persist in the environment for years, causing harm to marine life and affecting the surrounding ecosystems. This can have a knock-on effect on the communities that rely on these ecosystems for their livelihoods, including fishing and tourism.
Chemicals in oil are also toxic and harmful to both humans and animals. Various health-related issues, such as cramps, vomiting, and dizziness, emerged from the oil spillage. Many reported experiencing nausea and headaches as symptoms of breathing fuel oil vapors. Others experienced itchiness and blisters after skin contact.
Many also fear that the oil spill might reach neighboring provinces, including areas known internationally as the “center of the world’s rich marine biodiversity.” The Verde Island Passage (VIP), an underwater wilderness and UNESCO World Heritage Site that stretches through the provinces of Batangas, Marinduque, Mindoro Occidental and Oriental, and Romblon, could be at risk.
The 1.14-million-hectare VIP is unparalleled in the world in terms of its rich marine shore fish biodiversity. Protecting it from various forms of hazards is a matter of top environmental priority. Various risk reduction measures should be implemented and strengthened in order for future generations to take advantage of its immeasurable gift to humankind and prevent another oil spill from happening.
Polluters must pay: Demanding accountability
In situations like this, it is crucial for those responsible to take accountability. The parties responsible for the oil spill, both the tanker and oil cargo owner, must take responsibility for what happened and work toward containing the damage caused by the incident to the environment and communities affected. This includes cleaning up the spill and compensating affected communities for their losses.
Holding those responsible accountable sends a message that actions have consequences and can prevent future oil spills from occurring.
It is unfortunate, however, that Republic Act No. 9483 or the Oil Pollution Compensation Act of 2007, excludes charterers from claims for compensation for pollution damage. According to the law, only the owner of the ship shall be liable for any pollution damage. This certainly runs counter to the “polluters pay principle,” effectively absolving liability from the entities patronizing fossil fuels.
Bayanihan is alive: Communities come together
Amid the disaster, the role of communities, local organizations, and local businesses in movement building for the environment has emerged.
For instance, there are local groups and hair salons owned and managed by the LGBT community that have mobilized hair donation drives in response to claims that hair could help prevent the oil spill from spreading further.
While the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) has clarified that hair may have harmful chemicals and are not ideal for cleaning the spill, these organizations vowed to explore new options on how to help manage the impacts of the oil spill.
May this sense of bayanihan at the community level inspire the national government to respond to the oil spill with urgency and transparency, and ensure that adequate systems are in place to prevent a similar disaster from happening. This should include efforts to create an enabling environment for our industries to lessen and eventually eliminate dependence on fossil fuels.
We do not need another oil spill to affirm what science has already been telling us all these years: We need to veer away from fossil fuels to pass on a livable planet to the generations that will come after us.
Roxanne Omega Doron is a Climate Reality Leader based in the Visayas region who currently serves as executive director of Bisdak Pride, Inc., and as a lecturer at the University of the Philippines Cebu Professional Schools Environmental Studies Program.
ABOUT ELEVENTH HOUR
This article was originally published on The Climate Reality Project Philippines’ weekly column for the Manila Bulletin called Eleventh Hour.
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