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Arroyo orders probe of barge sinking (Uhm…yeah, right)

November 22, 2006

By Aurea Calica
The Philippine Star 11/23/2006

PRESIDENT Arroyo ordered yesterday a full investigation into the sinking of a barge carrying debris from the oil spill off Guimaras island.

“The President has expressed concern about this unfortunate incident and has tasked the agencies concerned led by Task Force Guimaras to get to the bottom of it,” Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said.

He said Mrs. Arroyo also asked authorities to map out strategies to minimize any adverse impact on the environment and the communities affected by the sinking of the barge Ras.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said the debris was not expected to cause as much damage as the oil spill, but added that authorities would look into the incident.

The Ras was being towed by the tugboat Vega when huge waves reportedly sank the vessel off the town of Plaridel in Misamis Occidental late Monday.

The barge was carrying 630 tons of rock and sand in 59,000 sacks, the oil firm Petron Corp. said in a statement released to media yesterday.

Petron had contracted the barge to ship debris from cleanup operations in Guimaras after the chemical tanker Solar I sank off the Guimaras coast on Aug. 11. The tanker was carrying 500,000 gallons of industrial fuel oil.

Petron owned the fuel that was spilled in August and had contracted Harbor Star, operator of the Ras, to ship oil-contaminated debris from Guimaras.

The barge Ras was contracted to ship the oil-contaminated debris from Guimaras to a Misamis Occidental port for transport to the Holcim Cement plant in Lugait, Misamis Oriental, where it was to be used as fuel, plant manager Bobby Sajonia said.

In a separate statement, Harbor Star said it was “collectively contracted” by the P&I Club, International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Ltd. and the International Oil Spill Compensation fund.

“Regardless of who owns the barge or who chartered it, Petron personnel are already in the field to do what is needed and minimize any impact that may arise from the incident,” Petron health, safety and environment manager Carlos Tan said in Petron’s statement.

“We wish to assure the local populace that the used sorbent booms are designed to keep the absorbent oil in,” Tan added. “In fact, not even traces of oily sheen were detected as the sorbent booms were recovered.”

He also said Petron personnel are conducting surveys along the eastern Misamis Occidental shoreline to assess if there is any potential damage. Tan added that the trace amount of oil contained in the cargo has been “weathering for three months and is highly unlikely to pose a danger to communities, shorelines or marine life.”

Petron Corp. said it has already mobilized Waterborne Industry Spill Response (WISE) equipment to the area where the Ras sank to “prepare for any contingency.”

The oil firm also said it is closely coordinating with provincial and local officials in connection with the incident.

Tens of thousands of gallons of oil spilled into the sea after the M/T Solar I sank, destroying a marine reserve, local fishing grounds and coating stretches of coastline with black sludge.

Two of the Ras’ crew members are still missing and are presumed dead.

“The composition of the debris carried by the barge is mostly sand and rocks with some traces of oil,” Petron said in its statement.

A maritime inquiry blamed the accident last August on overloading and inadequate training of the ship’s captain, Norberto Aguro.

Backlash

Meanwhile, environmentalists and fisher-folk organizations sought the termination of private interests in Petron Corp. and a government takeover of the operations of Petron Corp. because of the Ras’ mishap.

The Pamalakaya said that the sinking of the barge Ras merits the disqualification of the corporate interests controlling Petron, as the recent “environmental tragedy is a lucid testimony” that the oil company “is a huge environmental destroyer.”

“The latest disaster perpetrated by super profit-driven Petron merits the disqualification of corporate interests controlling the oil company and the subsequent nationalization and state takeover,” said Pamalakaya chairman Fernando Hicap.

“Its private owners, in cahoots with the officials of the corrupt Macapagal-Arroyo administration, must be grounded from operating Petron and must be haled to court for the extreme damage they created against the environment and socio-economic welfare of the people. Petron is an enemy of the environment and the people,”Hicap said.

Environmental groups fear that the sinking of the Ras will result in another wave of destruction of marine resources in Misamis Occidental and nearby provinces.

Environmental activist organization Kalikasan-Peoples’ Network for the Environment said that the release of the oil debris into the sea may create adverse and long-term health and environmental impact.

“Petron and the government are trying to condition the public into believing that the sunken oil sludge will have no significant effect on the marine ecosystem and public health. This is a misleading and dangerous assumption,” Kalikasan national coordinator Clemente Bautista said.

“Eventually, if no urgent action is taken to recover and remove the sunken sludge, the debris and oil sludge… It is inevitable that the sunken oil sludge will eventually degrade and bio-accumulate in the systems of marine species, such as fish,” Bautista said. “Definitely this will have a long-term domino effect, considering that fishing is also a major livelihood and industry in Misamis Occidental.”

Bautista said the oily debris comes from the same toxic oil sludge that washed up on Guimaras and contains similar toxic contaminants from industrial oil that may cause cancer, leukemia and congenital anomalies of unborn babies in the long-term.

“Remember that even the oil sludge produced afterwards had to be cleaned up by workers wearing various (types of) protective gear, such as full-face masks with air-purifying respirators, chemical-resistant clothing, including coveralls, gloves and steel-toed boots with boot covers,” he said.

Meanwhile, Task Force Macajalar, an environment group based in Misamis Occidental, said Petron should be punished for “its recklessness in handling pollutants from the Guimaras oil spill.”

According to the group, tar balls from the oil spill debris could release noxious substances, like hydrogen sulfide, which pose an adverse effect on the fragile coastal ecosystem in Misamis Occidental.

Task Force Macajalar also said some of the more advanced and successful marine and coastal conservation efforts are located in Misamis Occidental.

Polluting fishing grounds

In Iligan City, environmental groups and the Office of Civil Defense (OCD) in Northern Mindanao say that the Guimaras oil spill debris which was loaded on the now-sunken barge Ras will pollute the fishing grounds in Panguil Bay.

This assessment was made by Partido Kalikasan and Task Force Macajalar after Petron released its latest statement.

Task Force Macajalar representative and lawyer Manuel Ravanera said that their group will conduct an independent investigation into the effects of the release of the oil spill debris on Panguil Bay.

Panguil Bay is the fishing ground of fishermen from the coastal areas of Lanao del Norte, Misamis Occidental, parts of Zamboanga del Norte and the cities of Ozamiz and Iligan.

Meanwhile, the OCD in Region 10 said the ecosystem in Panguil Bay will be affected by the oil spill debris, since this debris is still a pollutant.

However, OCD regional director Salvador Estudillo said their office is still gathering more data on the incident.

The OCD regional operations office said that fishermen along the coast of Lanao del Norte, Misamis Occidental, Iligan and Ozamiz who depend on Panguil Bay for their livelihood are “drastically affected.” — With Katherine Adraneda, Lino dela Cruz

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One comment

  1. it’s sad that amidst all these probings there is little action done. why can’t the government put more pressure unto Petron? Why does Petron insist on downplaying the effects of its actions? tsk tsk tsk



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