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Jurisdiction issues haunt Guimaras-Misamis oil spills

December 24, 2006

IN MY PACK By Ruth G. Mercado
The Freeman 12/23/2006

JURISDICTION issues haunting the Guimaras-Misamis oil spills may make it easy for culprits to get away unpunished, unscathed and unblemished. Whether in criminal or civil aspects, authorities seem too coy to address the unique nature of the case where jurisdiction is a vital issue.

Described as the worst oil spills and maritime environment disasters ever to have hit the country, not much has been heard from the Guimaras and Misamis oil spills long after these no longer clinched headlines. Investigation has been underway, but nothing has been heard as to whether these merit prosecution or if there are any definitive moves of a legal suit.

Like most cases of marine board inquiries that go through rigmarole of foot-dragging, so have the Guimaras and Misamis oil spills. While justice moves at a snail’s pace, the immeasurable amount of marine life and unearned revenues owing to lost livelihood run with racing speed. The ticking time bomb of bunker oil embedded in the ocean both in Guimaras and Polo Point in Misamis continues to tick. There seems to be no timeline as to when these will be siphoned out if these will be siphoned at all.

On August 9, the MT Solar I left the Port of Bataan in clear weather carrying some two million liters of bunker fuel enroute to Zamboanga. The vessel and its cargo never reached destination as it sank off the coasts of Iloilo on August 11. Two of the Solar I’s 20-man crew perished in the tragedy but so did thousands of marine life in the ensuing oil spill and unearned revenues of resorts where white sands turned into a black carpet of sludge.

As a natural consequence of any probe, a Task Force Guimaras was convened that brought together the agencies of the Coast Guard, maritime, environment and justice department. The Coast Guard also convened its special board of marine inquiry, separate and distinct from the task force. Under Philippine criminal and civil laws and Coast Guard laws, an accident or crime is heard in the place where it happened. But instead of hearing the case in Guimaras, then Coast Guard commandant Arthur Gosingan transferred the hearing of the case in Manila where the special board of inquiry was convened. No explanation was made on the exception other than saying transfer of venue is always at the discretion of the commandant.

In wrapping up its two-week inquiry, Coast Guard’s special board of marine inquiry gave three distinct causes for the sinking including overloading, flooding and shipmaster incompetence. The shipmaster reportedly carried an expired chemical tanker license and failed to exercise due diligence in making the ship seaworthy. The board held five parties liable including the tanker’s shipmaster Captain Norberto Aguro, shipowner Sunshine Maritime, shipper Petron, Marina and the Coast Guard itself. 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.

In its separate inquiry, the justice department immediately pinned the blame on MT Solar I shipmaster Aguro for having sailed without proper documents and in rough weather. The justice department made the conclusion in the absence of proof that the weather bureau issued typhoon signal advisories at the time of the sinking. Dissenting with the Coast Guard’s findings, the justice department cleared Petron of criminal liability.

The problem with maritime, civil and criminal laws in this country is that there are no distinct laws penalizing oil pollution or the regulation of oil tankers. While there is a primary law penalizing oil pollution through Presidential Decree 600, the 1974-issued law is silent on regulation of oil tankers and shipowner and cargo owner liabilities. In the absence of expressed laws regulating the operation of oil tankers, party liability is uncertain, sparing shipowners or cargo owners of liability when it is established that the spill is caused by fortuitous event.

But while the Guimaras case was already infested with loopholes, when in clean-up operations the barge carrying some 60,000 sacks oil debris sank off the coasts of Plaridel in Misamis on Nov. 20 or three months after MT Solar I sank in Guimaras. The oil debris was supposed to have been shipped to Holcim Cement in Zamboanga for treatment and disposal when it sank.

The Coast Guard convened another marine inquiry board this month in Cagayan de Oro where Misamis is under the jurisdiction of the Northern Mindanao command. The Guimaras and Misamis oil spills are practically plagued with the same loopholes. One is the absence of laws regulating oil tankers or vessels transporting hazardous chemicals like industrial oil, bunker fuel or oil debris. Two, both vessels sailed on clear weather. Can it be expected that Harbor Star, owners and operators of barge Ras, will be spared of liability because of the absence of expressed law on regulating transport of hazardous debris or will fortuity be used again as an alibi? Three, oil pollution is a continuing crime and the Guimaras and Misamis oil spills are continuing events, why can’t it be tried in one venue? With what anti-oil pollution laws will Sunshine Maritime or Harbor Star be sued?

Alarmingly as the legal fracas drags on, ugly, toxic bunker fuel and oil debris leak underneath the sea and that ticking time bomb comes with the odyssey of catastrophes.

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