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EDITORIAL – A sorry state

November 22, 2006

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The Philippine Star 11/22/2006

THIS is the state of the Philippine maritime industry: a barge transporting over 600 tons of sludge collected from the waters around Guimaras sank off Misamis Occidental Monday night. The oil debris came from the chemical tanker Solar 1, which sank Aug. 11 with two million liters of bunker fuel off Guimaras, creating the country’s worst oil spill.

That environmental disaster, whose impact will be felt for many years, should have led to a tighter watch on the seaworthiness of the vessels plying an archipelago that is regularly visited by powerful typhoons and heavy monsoon rains. Now we are faced with another barge sinking — according to its owner — in rough seas.

The barge Ras, owned by Harbor Star, was being towed by a tugboat when it went down at 11:10 p.m. Monday about five kilometers northeast of Plaridel town. The barge was carrying the last shipment of debris from the Guimaras oil spill that was to be sent to Holcim Cement for reprocessing into fuel. Oil giant Petron Corp., which had chartered both the Solar 1 and the Ras, downplayed the environmental impact of the sinking of the barge, pointing out that the sludge was packed in sand and contained in sacks that were expected to simply sink to the bottom of the sea without spilling the toxic contents. This remains to be seen.

Investigators will determine whether the sinking was purely an accident or due to violations of maritime safety regulations. Such investigations are conducted after every maritime accident. Yet maritime transportation in this archipelago of 7,100 islands remains risky for both passengers and cargo.

Security precautions have been tightened on ferries since Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah terrorists blew up the Superferry 14 near the mouth of Manila Bay on Feb. 27, 2004, leaving over a hundred people dead. Action has been slower in enforcing safety regulations and upgrading maritime fleets to reduce the risks of traveling by sea. The sinking of the Ras should prompt the government to intensify those efforts.

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