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Guimaras oil spill: One month later

September 9, 2006

IN MY PACK By Ruth G. Mercado
The Freeman 09/09/2006

EXACTLY one month today, the MT Solar I left the Port of Bataan bound for the Port of Zamboanga in clear weather carrying two million liters of bunker fuel. That ship never reached Zamboanga when it sank off the coasts of Guimaras less than 24 hours after it left port.

Less than 48 hours after the sinking, multi-million-peso worth of marine sanctuaries and beach resorts in Guimaras were wiped out with black, ugly, toxic oil. Less than 72 hours after the tragedy, mangroves, marine life and livelihood were extinguished to oblivion. Less than 96 hours later, children and a hapless population were either sick or dying with toxic fuel fumes. In less than a week, the once beautiful Guimaras that had been known as a peaceful beach getaway had now taken a new destination image – Guimaras: Destination Oil Spill.

Exactly one month tomorrow, I sent frantic text messages to Coast Guard officers in Cebu about the sinking of MT Solar I in Guimaras only to be told that they were out on a weekend. Co-editors in the newsroom can attest at how emotional I was because no one in the Cebu command was remotely aware that a horrific disaster was taking place. I am repulsed by the tragedy. More than that, I am heavyhearted, disgusted, betrayed that as a responsible citizen and taxpayer of this country, the Coast Guard here to whom my taxes pay their salaries, never gave thought as I pleaded for help purportedly because it was not “their area of responsibility.”

Less than one week after the tragedy, the Coast Guard’s special board of marine inquiry was convened in Manila. In less than two weeks, Petron apologized and took responsibility of the tragedy after being pressed upon. Less than three weeks after the tragedy, six task forces sprouted creating a maelstrom out of the already stormy disaster.

It is now four weeks since the spill and only then did President Arroyo push for Congress to draft and pass an oil spill prevention law. Only four weeks later has the National Disaster and Coordinating Council streamlined task designation in the overall scheme of oil spill containment and rehabilitation now that the spill damaged 220 kilometers of coastline, 450 hectares of mangroves, 1,144 hectares of marine reserves and 116 hectares of seaweed plantations. Only after four weeks did the president order the justice department a no-whitewash investigation into the oil spill that will ensure an “airtight case.”

But even before the case could be brought to proper courts of law for prosecution, when justice department undersecretary Ernesto Pineda immediately pinned the blame on MT Solar I Captain Norberto Aguro for having sailed without the proper documents and in rough weather. Pineda said this without any statement from the weather bureau if typhoon signal advisories were issued between Aug. 9 to 11 or the period since the ship was cleared to depart to the time of the sinking. He also cleared Petron of criminal liability, a statement that may be premature considering the investigation has not yet been concluded.

There is a degree of impropriety and awkwardness that while the Coast Guard is holding its own investigation under the auspices of the Board of Marine Inquiry, this same agency becomes the subject of investigation under the auspices of the Palace-designated Task Force Guimaras of the justice department. If the president truly wants an airtight case, the board of marine inquiry must be dissolved first leaving only one investigating body.

If only to distinguish the trees from the forest and the forest from the jungle, the president must make a decision on what she wants to do with the Coast Guard while the Coast Guard Bill is now pending in Congress. And yes perhaps direct the justice department to refrain from issuing premature verdicts and for the media covering the Guimaras spill to be circumspect about technicalities and merits of the case. This tragedy is far from over.

(Click Freeman, Sept. 9, 2006.)

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