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Love finds oil spill cleanup workers

March 27, 2007

By Nestor P. Burgos Jr.
The News Today
March 27, 2007

tandocouple.jpg
Jessie and Vicky Castidad along the shores of
Barangay Tando in Nueva Valencia Guimaras

NUEVA VALENCIA, GUIMARAS–Love and hope have blossomed amid the tragedy and devastation that struck Guimaras Island.

Two residents of a village worst hit by the Petron oil spill met and fell in love while working in the clean up of the contaminated coastline. They got married early this year.

Like other residents of Barangay Tando in Nueva Valencia town in Guimaras, Jessie Castidad and Vicky Gandesila woke up on August 12 last year with the stench of bunker fuel and the horror of thick, sticky sludge in their shores and doorsteps.

Their village was among the worst hit by the Petron oil spill after the tanker Solar I sank 13 miles southwest of Guimaras on August 11 last year.

The tanker was transporting 2.1 million liters of bunker fuel from the Petron depot in Bataan to Zamboanga when it encountered rough seas. At least 300,000 liters of bunker fuel are believed to have been spilled.

The oil spill, considered the worst in the country’s history, contaminated the island’s pristine beaches and rich marine resources. It also devastated the livelihood of the residents who were mostly dependent on fishing.

With fish catch almost down to nothing, hundreds of residents volunteered to work for the cleanup operations of the shoreline organized by Petron Corp. The residents were initially paid at P250 per day and at P300 daily starting September.

Jessie, 28, and Vicky, 22, were among the Tando residents who worked in the cleanup.

A fisherman since he was 10 years old, Jessie started working at the cleanup sites on Aug. 15 at the height of the oil spill until it was completed late last year. Vicky who started shell-gathering when she was 14 years old, started working sometime in September last year.

Though living in the same village, Jessie and Vicky never got a chance to be acquainted. They only met and were introduced shortly after Vicky started working in the cleanup operations.

They met in a house of one of their fellow workers, where the members of the cleanup teams would usually spend time bantering and relaxing after work.

“We were introduced but I did not give him a second thought then,” recalls Vicky.

These informal gatherings became the only time that they were together because they were assigned to separate cleanup sites in the village.

The two became friends, however, and soon after, their fellow workers started teasing them.

While Vicky first dismissed the teasing, she later admitted to herself that her blushes and Jessie’s meaningful glances were leading into something more than friendship.

“I was surprised that I started entertaining the possibility that we could be a couple because he was the silent type who did not really say much and much less show or express his emotion,” says Vicky.

Jessie who never had a girlfriend before, said he was shy at first to tell Vicky about his feelings but he later realized that he should act because he was even old enough to get married.

On Oct. 6 last year, on Vicky’s 22nd birthday, Jessie mustered the courage to profess his love. Five days later, the two officially became lovers.

“It was exciting but I was also afraid because although I had a ‘boyfriend’ years ago, this was one is serious,” says Vicky.

Vicky said she was drawn to Jessie’s good natured ways and his calming silence. “People look at him as a responsible person so it was not really difficult to fall in love with him.”

Jessie said he was attracted to her bubbly and girlish ways, the way she laughs and makes him feel happy when they are together.

The couple got married in a church ceremony at the barangay chapel on January 27 and are now staying at the house of Jessie’s family.

Despite the tragedy, the couple is hopeful that things will get better.

“We have lived because of the sea and we will continue to do so,” says Jessie who was forced to quit school when he was in Grade 2 because of poverty. Vicky only managed to reached Grade 6.

He has returned to fishing while she has gone back to shell-gathering.

Like the other villagers, the couple has welcomed the help that has poured into their village which can help them stand on their feet again.

The village is home to a P5-million mangrove nursery of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources funded by Mirant Philippines.

It is also a recipient of a livelihood and rehabilitation project of the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives which aims to to help residents cope with the long term effects of the oil spill.

The project involved the donation of four motorized boats, fishnets and other gear for deep-sea fishing to four clusters of fishermen. In turn, the fishermen from the four clusters would divide the income from their catch.

This month, Jessie and Vicky were among the residents who attended the groundbreaking ceremonies for a new four-room elementary school building donated by Petron Corp. The school building will replace the dilapidated classrooms being used by around 100 children.

The villagers are also comforted that the operation to remove the remaining oil inside the wreck had finally been started on March 11. The operation costing around $6 million is expected to last from 20 days to around a month.

There are still residents, church groups and officials of Nueva Valencia that are protesting the stopping of the clean-up operations saying that oil sludge are still present in some areas and can be found a few inches below sand. They are demanding that Petron continue its clean-up operations.

But Nueva Valencia Mayor Diosdado Gonzaga said the people are thankful that the operations have begun seven months after the oil spill devastated wide stretches of coast line and severely affected the people’s livelihood.

“Now we can focus on our rehabilitation efforts and programs,” says Gonzaga.

For Jessie and Vicky, this means that they can now move on, now as a couple, with the belief that something good can always come out from even the worst experience.

“If not for the oil spill I would not have met and found my wife,” says Jessie. “We both want to have children soon.”

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