Tuesday, April 4, 2023

WWF-Philippines urges swift action and a review of Oil Spill Contingency Plan in view of the Mindoro Oil Spill

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WWF-Philippines is profoundly concerned over the critical environmental and social consequences caused by the recent oil spill in Oriental Mindoro resulting from the sinking of the MT Princess Empress last February 28. As of March 27, PCG has reported 10,613L of oily water collected, 123 sacks of oil-contaminated materials from offshore operations, with 3,644.5 sacks and 22 drums of waste from the shoreline. The total length of coastline affected is 55.5 km in Oriental Mindoro (45 km), Antique (6 km), and Palawan (4.5 km). A state of calamity was declared in nine towns surrounding the site.

According to the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), The MT Princess Empress was reportedly carrying 800,000 liters (211,340 gallons) of industrial fuel oil when it sank. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) estimates that the sunken vessel releases oil at a rate of 35,000 to 50,000 liters a day. Furthermore, DENR has expressed that 21 marine protected areas are possibly at risk of being affected by the spill. The University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute (UP MSI) has provided projections on the extent of the spill. UP MSI has initially reported that the oil slick could possibly affect over 36,000 hectares (for context, Quezon City is 16,110 hectares) of coral reefs, mangroves, and seagrass across Occidental Mindoro, Oriental Mindoro, Palawan, and Antique.

This event has caused widespread and interconnected damage to the well-being of the living communities there: people, ecosystems, and other species. We have insight from the Guimaras Oil Spill in 2006 that recovery from oil spills can take a long time. Because of that 2006 incident, 20,000 fishers across the islands of Panay, Guimaras, and Negros have lost income linked to 1,143 hectares of marine reserves spoiled and a total of 648.98 hectares of mangrove forests affected, with 0.93 hectares of mangrove dead three months after the spill. Mean seagrass has reportedly declined from 28.2% to 15% after two years.

WWF has been actively working together with various sectors from the government, NGO, and private sector in coming up with a plan, including an interactive map application revealing the extent of the oil slick based on the oil spill mapping conducted using the available free satellite imagery from March 1 onwards. The analyses published by other organizations and government agencies are also included in the map. This plan will also help to mitigate the further extent of damage from the oil spill, including the urgent provision of livelihood reparation through available means and ensuring the granting of immediate aid to the affected communities.

We recognize and acknowledge the Government's response in addressing and containing the oil spill. We further recommend the following actions based on lessons learned from WWF’s experience in its worldwide network working on similar incidents over the years:

1. Immediate stoppage of the leak and recovery of oil that remains within the sunken vessel to retrieve it from underwater should be of utmost priority. Based on lessons from the Guimaras oil spill in 2006, working with international agencies and organizations should be considered in terms of technology assistance and siphoning the oil. This should be aligned with implementing massive coordinated oil spill containment and clean-up effort spanning multiple provinces, with the active involvement of various national government agencies.

2. Review the current implementation of the policy on the Oil Spill Contingency Plan (NOSCOP) to consider imposing comprehensive and more stringent regulations and accountability on vessels carrying hazardous materials and reviewing the current routes of these vessels. WWF-Philippines supported the development of NOSCOP in 2019, which aimed to provide clear guidance on the national response to oil spills. We recommend conducting a Sensitivity Index Mapping throughout the country to determine habitats and other coastal resources that are at risk of being damaged by potential oil spill incidents.

3. Conducting baseline assessments of ecosystems over a wide area of the Verde Island Passage beyond the oil spill and regular monitoring of water quality, indicator organisms (such as clams, corals, and fishes), and critical habitats, particularly mangrove and coral reefs. This will determine oil spill impacts and determine proper attribution. Efforts should focus on mapping endangered and threatened species.

4. Fast-track phase-out of fossil fuels to transition to clean and renewable energy. This oil spill is just one of the many lethal risks that fossil fuels pose to the environment. Our country is already struggling with adaptation and mitigation measures against the climate crisis, and oil spills seriously compound the crisis.

5. Better management of shipping routes and marine protected areas so that they do not overlap and to avoid similar incidents from happening again in the future. Thousands of Filipinos have their small-scale livelihoods anchored on the natural resources provided by healthy seas, and this should be a crucial factor considered by all corporations, especially those in the logistics and oil industries.

We archipelagic Filipinos live our stories soaked in pride and joy over the beauty of our 7640 islands, strung by our beautiful seas. An oil spill is a lethal poison not just to the beauty of our marine heritage but also to our overall natural wealth and future. We can only genuinely claim to be the center of marine biodiversity in the world if we ourselves address oil spills swiftly and seriously, knowing full well that our very lives and futures depend on it.

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