Authorities in the Philippines are scrambling to contain an oil leak from a sunken tanker that could threaten the rich biodiversity of more than 20 marine protected areas.
The MT Princess Empress, which was carrying a cargo of about 800,000 litres of industrial oil, sank on Tuesday off the coast of Naujan, Oriental Mindoro province, after it experienced problems with its engine and began to drift due to rough seas. A passing cargo ship rescued the 20 crew onboard.
The Philippine Coast Guard is deploying oil spill booms and absorbent booms to try to minimise damage, according to the environment department, which said it was “continuously assessing the important biodiversity sites”.
Ram Temena, the disaster operations chief in the affected province of Oriental Mindoro, told Agence France-Presse an oil slick off Mindoro island, south of the capital, Manila, stretched for 120km (75 miles) and was about 9km (5.5 miles) offshore.
Oriental Mindoro’s 18,000 registered fishers have been told to stay onshore until it was safe to fish, according to Agence France-Presse.
Pola town in Oriental Mindoro, one of the worst affected areas, has been placed under a state of calamity due to the spill. The town’s mayor, Jennifer Cruz, told the Philippines media network GMA that the seawater and shoreline had turned black. “You can see the oil spill in the waves. Fish were dying. Our white sand is now black sand,” Cruz said.
The environment department said this week that 21 marine protected areas could be affected, including seagrass beds, mangroves and pathways for fish larvae.
Environmental campaigners are especially concerned about risks posed to the Verde Island Passage, a strait that separates the Philippine islands of Luzon and Mindoro, which has been described as the centre of global shore-fish biodiversity. It is also a source of food and livelihoods for more than 2 million people, according to Conservation International.
Protect VIP, a coalition that seeks to protect the Verde Island Passage (VIP), has called on the government to expedite cleanup operations to minimise the damage, and for companies involved to be held accountable.
“We are concerned that this incident will stunt growth and reproduction of fish, shellfish, mangroves, seagrasses, and coral reefs, and cause death even to sea birds exposed to the leaked oil. Fish catch will be reduced, and any seafood that reaches the table of communities and consumers are already a threat to their health,” said Gerry Arances, the co-convenor of Protect VIP and executive director of the Center of Energy, Ecology, and Development.
“We are now in a race against time to prevent the oil from spreading. Immediate containment, assessment of the severity, and assistance to nearby coastal communities must be provided,” added Arances.
The Philippine Coast Guard confirmed on Thursday that seawater samples had been found to be contaminated not only with the fuel that powered the vessel, but also with oil from the cargo. The amount of oil that has leaked is unclear.
The environment secretary, Antonia Yulo-Loyzaga, who led the aerial surveillance of the oil spill in Naujan on Friday, said in a statement: “At this point, what is important is to determine the extent and contain the spread of the oil. Secondly, hasten the cleanup to prevent further impacts of the coastal and marine biodiversity especially as well on the livelihoods of the local communities.”
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