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Oil spill traced to corruption, incompetence

August 28, 2006

BIG DEAL
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By DAN MARIANO

PROBERS would be well advised to place the owner of Solar I, Sunshine Marine Development Corp., under close scrutiny too. They need to review the company’s track record and find out if its other tankers are seaworthy.

Officials of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources investigating the Guimaras oil spill have promised to release the results of their inquiry sometime this week.

If the DENR officials make good on their promise, it would be an improvement over the investigation of a similar incident on December 18 last year when a barge of the state-owned National Power Corp. ran aground off Semirara island. The NAPOCOR barge spilled 364,000 liters of fuel and ruined vast stretches of the coast of Antique province.

Informed quarters, however, doubt that DENR would be able to wrap up its probe of the Guimaras oil spill as quickly as promised. They point out that the investigation of the Semirara incident took at least three months to complete—and the results were widely regarded as insufficient since they produced no new policy, standards or practices that would have prevented more oil spills.

Case in point: The oil spill from the MT Solar I, which sank in rough seas August 11, has affected over 200 kilometers of the Guimaras coastline, including beaches and mangroves—killing wildlife and disrupting the livelihood of at least 10,000 Guimareños. Nearly a week after the tanker sank, the cleanup has been described as spotty, haphazard and ineffective. Worse, the oil spill happened right smack in the middle of the monsoon season, raising the danger of the slick spreading to other islands.

The DENR probe of the Guimaras oil spill is focused on the ecological destruction wrought by the oil spill. However, the investigators should not stop there. In the first place, industry sources said, Solar I should not have been contracted by Petron Corp. to transport oil. Sources described the obsolete, single-hull tanker as a disaster waiting to happen. And happen the disaster did.

The Petron-chartered tanker was carrying 2.1 million liters of oil when it sank in the Guimaras Strait. As of noon Friday, the Philippine Coast Guard estimated that over 200,000 liters of oil have already leaked into the waters of Western Visayas. Some 1.9 million liters remain in the tanker’s nine other compartments. But if the vessel is not raised soon, the remaining oil could also spill out and cause even more widespread destruction.

The problem is that similarly decrepit tankers remain under contract with Petron and other oil companies to ferry petroleum products from depots in Luzon to islands throughout the archipelago. In other countries, petroleum products are transported in more modern, double-hull tankers, which can better withstand the vagaries of weather than their single-hull counterparts.

Why has Petron, which is jointly owned by the Philippine government and Saudi Aramco, contracted obsolete, single-hull tankers to ferry oil products from island to island? Answering that question will require looking into who approves multimillion-peso tanker contracts. There is talk in industry circles of kickbacks and “syndicates,” which not only allow vessels of questionable seaworthiness to service Petron but also engage in other criminal activities such as pilferage, hijacking and smuggling. These are serious charges, to say the least.

(Originally published on ABS-CBN News web site on Aug. 26, 2006. Click here for the rest of the column.)

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