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Why the hush over barge Ras?

March 18, 2007

IN MY PACK
By Ruth G. Mercado
The Freeman 03/17/2007

BECAUSE of the hostile and transparent manner the Special Board of Marine Inquiry handled the barge Ras sinking off the coasts of Misamis, its findings were hushed purportedly pending review with the Coast Guard’s board of marine inquiry in Manila. Commodore Benjamin Mata, chairman of the Coast Guard’s Board of Marine Inquiry said the findings were not to be released prematurely – especially when findings are too revealing to be true.

Congratulations go to Coast Guard’s Northern Mindanao district commander Commodore Cecil Chen who is chairman of the special marine inquiry board and his team. Since the Solar I oil spill in August, never before has there been a hostile approach at maritime disasters in the country. The board arrived at three revealing conclusions: that there may be links among Petron, owners of MT Solar I or MT Vega from which it can be established that the August Solar I and November Barge Ras are continuing events. Second, negligence and safety breaches, not fortuity, caused the sinking. Three, vessels were not seaworthy at the time of the accident.

Collaborating with a Cagayan-based journalist, The Freeman launched an investigative report to establish links in the continuing events of the Guimaras oil spill and the Misamis barge sinking. The findings turned out more murky and slimy than the “worst maritime oil spill” in the country’s history.

On Nov. 20, barge Ras that was towed by Motor Tanker Vega, sank two miles off Polo Point, Plaridel, Misamis Occidental on clear weather. Carrying 59,649 sacks of oil contaminated debris from Cabalagnan, Guimaras, the barge was on its way to Lugait, Misamis Oriental where the debris was to be delivered to Holcim, Philippines for treatment and disposal. Holcim is a cement factory based in Misamis.

The barge of hazardous cargo had been part of clean up operations after 998-ton MT Solar I carrying some two million liters of bunker fuel sank off the coasts of Guimaras on a clear day in August last year. The Manila-registered tanker Solar I left the Port of Bataan on Aug. 10 and was on its way to deliver its cargo of bunker fuel to Zamboanga when the tanker sunk off Guimaras, Iloilo apparently buffeted with strong waves.

Petron Corporation claimed responsibility for the spill and that it had engaged Sunshine Maritime Development Corporation, operators of Solar I, to deliver the cargo to Zamboanga. But in the aftermath of two separate probes done by the justice department and the Coast Guard on the Solar I sinking, both agencies pinned the blame solely on Solar I Captain Norberto Aguro for having sailed in rough weather carrying an expired chemical tanker license. Issues on fortuity were discreetly evaded.

Though both incidents happened four months apart, the Solar I and barge Ras accidents are continuing offenses because these involve the same hazardous cargo that spills over complex issues of improper cargo handling and maritime pollution. Yet as the Coast Guard’s Manila inquiry board and justice department gave the Solar I sinking perfunctory treatment, Northern Mindanao’s special inquiry board was hawkish.

Rejecting fortuity, the special inquiry board categorically said it was negligence and that the ship was not seaworthy to be direct causes of the sinking. The board said the crew did not exercise due diligence when they failed to secure barge hatches properly causing seawater to flood cargo holds as the vessel was underway. The board also found documentary irregularities in barge and tugboat licenses, ownership and compliance of the required number of ship crew.

The boat and barge were found to have sailed without communication equipment that neither vessel could send alerts to each other and to authorities. As the barge started sinking and dragged the tugboat down, the 160-meter towline snapped. MT Vega’s crew had to cut off the snapped towline as the barge disappeared underneath the sea. The barge’s eight-man escaped aboard a life raft.

From testimonies and documentary evidence, Chen’s team established the pattern of ownership. Barge Ras is a Filipino registered vessel owned and operated by Key Logistics, Incorporated based in Manila. Harbor Star Shipping, specializing among others services in oil abatement and recovery, owns MT Vega. A scrutiny on Harbor Star’s website shows that Barge Ras is in its fleet list.

The inquiry board found out that while earlier proceedings show Sunshine Maritime owns and operates Solar I, testimonies suggest Harbor Star may also be involved in its ownership.

There are likewise insinuations that owners of Harbor Star have connections with owners of Holcim Cement and that someone in Harbor Star or Holcim is allegedly involved or works with Petron.

The special board of inquiry in Northern Mindanao recommended the “filing of appropriate charges by government agencies against Harbor Star Shipping Services of MT Vega shipmaster Jeremie Caterio and his chief engineer.

The board was silent on the filing of charges against owners barge Ras. Efforts were made to call Commodore Chen but he deliberately would not answer his cellphone from all three numbers he himself provided The Freeman.

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