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Reflections on a calamity

August 30, 2006

I NEED a passport to travel out of this country. I need a license to drive. My car must be registered so I can use it. If I tried to do any of these, without these documents, I could get into trouble.

How then does a tanker, fully laden with a hazardous cargo like fuel oil, receive clearance to leave port, in uncertain weather, when both its registration and the license of its captain have lapsed?

Collusion, you say. Is it possible that the shipowner and the company chartering the vessel have colluded? Maybe. But, will that be possible if the regulatory agents, whose job it is to inspect all vessels prior to departure, were not colluding as well?

And, if this happened with one fuel tanker leaving Bataan in early August, is it not possible that this same collusion may be happening in several sites, involving several corporations, ships, captains and regulatory agents, throughout the country?

The Guimaras spill is an environmental tragedy. The President says we now face a national calamity. She is right. The question is: “Is this calamity environmental? Or, at its very base, is this really a calamity of governance?”

The Philippine Coast Guard and the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) are the government agencies tasked to regulate ports and shipping. Among other things, they serve as a check-and-balance mechanism to ensure that laws are complied with and enforced. Ultimately, all these laws are created to serve and protect the nation and the millions of taxpayers who fund these agencies. When the Solar 1 was given clearance to leave Bataan, were our laws followed? And whose interests were served?

These thoughts disturb me. They make me wonder what the phrase “public service” means to us, both the governors and the governed. They make me wonder about the trillion pesos our lawmakers have budgeted to run our ship of state. They make me wonder about the many cases of graft and corruption that have been filed, but more than that, the many more that may never be discovered, filed and driven to a just conclusion. They make me think about those thousands of vehicles with red plates, emblazoned with the words “For Official Use Only” that many of us know are used for personal convenience, by “officials”.

I think about the millions of Filipinos who pay taxes for virtually every commodity they buy – from noodles, to cigarettes, to diesel fuel, to gin, to canned sardines – and still do not get the quality product they are paying for. And I wonder about the 25 million Filipinos who live on less than P100 per day.

We face a national calamity, no doubt. But all this goes way beyond Guimaras and the Visayan Seas. It is not merely environmental, it is systemic.

Yesterday, a Coast Guard officer was shown a satellite photograph that clearly showed a 50 kilometer oil slick in the Visayan Sea. The presence of the slick was verified that same day by three independent and credible private sources. The Coast Guard¹s reaction? No, there is no slick there.

A media person called me about the same photo. Her question? We want to know if you verified this slick. Why? The Coast Guard said it is not there.

If this is where we are today, we are in deep trouble.

Lorenzo Tan

(From INQ7.net, Aug. 28, 2006.)

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