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Everything is spilling except the beans

September 16, 2006

IN MY PACK By Ruth G. Mercado
The Freeman 09/16/2006

AS a journalist, I jump into the lake of fire to find out if it’s a lake. I step into a den of lions to find out if it’s a lion. I talk to shipmasters and oil smugglers to find out if it’s oil. In the aftermath of a three-page report, the Special Board of Marine Inquiry said loss of reserved buoyancy and stability caused oil tanker Solar I – with a load of 2 million liters of bunker fuel – to sink off the coasts of Guimaras on August 11. More than half a million liters of oil have spilled from the ship’s leaking compartments, but witnesses and authorities could not spill the beans on what caused the triangular gash on the ship’s hull.

In wrapping up its two-week inquiry, the Board gave three distinct causes for the sinking that included loss of reserved buoyancy owing to overloading, loss of residual stability owing to flooding and shipmaster incompetence. The shipmaster reportedly carried an expired chemical tanker license and failed to exercise due diligence in making the ship seaworthy.

Held liable for the tragedy are the tanker’s shipmaster, shipowners Sunshine Maritime, shipper Petron, the Maritime Industry Authority and the Coast Guard. But liability was not specified whether these are criminal, civil or administrative or whether all parties are jointly or solidarily liable for causes of negligence or fortuity. Still none of the five parties who have been held liable have spilled the beans so far.

None of the witnesses and authorities could explain why the ship was cleared to depart on August 9 from the Port of Bataan when it was overloaded or that its loadline was adjusted. While the Coast Guard has the final discretion on departure clearance it is unclear why the ship was cleared to depart when the shipmaster carried an expired license? Were there are other crewmembers who similarly carried expired certificates.

No one has spilled the beans on whether there was a clearing plan or if the Coast Guard had actually boarded the ship for inspection. If boarding was done, had the inspection team seen cracks or gashes in the hull?

No one has spilled the beans on where Solar I had come from? Is it true that the MT Solar I is also registered in Panama as MT Newhinase with gross tonnage of 499, and that the same vessel is registered in the Philippines with gross tonnage of 998? How old was the vessel when it was brought and registered in the Philippines? Was the vessel altered? And if altered, who surveyed the ship?

Shipmaster Aguro said they had taken shelter in Iloilo to de-water when cargo compartments flooded. What made him decide to sail and continue the journey? Had they detected oil leaking from the ship and that to cover up the spill, decided to sail?

The inquiry board suggests the triangular gash on the ship’s hull could only have been caused by metal touching metal. But no one of the crew has yet spilled the beans if the gash was caused by ship side docking, there was a vessel alongside or it was hit by its own anchor.

The Solar I sank 14 nautical miles off the coasts of Guimaras. The crew said they rode a life raft and reached shore less than 24 hours after the sinking. Mere paddling would make it impossible to reach shore in a life raft less than 24 hours. None of the crew has yet spilled the beans if there was another vessel that towed them to shore?

What caused the inquiry board to suspect oil pilferage or smuggling was involved were footages showing open cargo holds. As a matter of procedure, cargo holds are supposed to be closed especially in rough waters. If indeed oil smuggling or oil pilferage was involved, did Petron, Sunshine Maritime or the Coast Guard know of these nefarious operations? If oil was siphoned from the Solar I to another ship, what was that ship, where had it originated and where is it now? If only because it caused unspeakable disaster, would this suggest that a well-knit conspiracy of oil smuggling is rampant in this country?

To redeem its reputation, a Petron official claimed that it is the first to have chartered double-hulled tankers. But no one has spilled the beans on why local maritime authorities have not imposed double-bottom tankers nor is there strict phasing out of single hulled tankers.

While no one has yet spilled the beans, ugly black oil continues to spill out of leaking cargo holds from the sunken tanker scarring coastlines, marine sanctuaries and life.

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