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IOPC exec bewails political meddling in oil spill claims

April 26, 2007

By Nestor P. Burgos Jr.
The News Today
April 26, 2007

AFTER being ravaged by millions of liters of bunker fuel spilled on their shores, residents of Guimaras Island are now caught in the bitter wrangling of politicians over the payment of pollution compensation claims.

The International Oil Pollution Compensation (IOPC) Fund has lamented how the claims for compensation for damages incurred from the Petron oil spill has been derailed by politics.

“…It is sad that the incident is being used by politicians this way. It is very sad that other people are exploiting the victims in various ways,” said IOPC deputy director and technical adviser Joe Nichols.

The IOPC is a London-based intergovernmental agency that indemnifies losses resulting from oil spills.

While he did not point out who was responsible, Nichols pointed to the deluge of “spurious” claimants that have swamped the IOPC.

“Unfortunately, this whole incident got wrapped in the political situation and the Fund is being used as a political football match, which is very sad,” said Nichols in an interview.

The IOPC has received 102,600 claim forms for the second batch of claimants from Guimaras.

Nichols said they were shocked by the number of additional claimants, which added with the first batch of claimants, accounted to 80 percent of the island’s total population of 154,000. “It is simply impossible for that number of people to be directly affected by pollution.”

Nichols said they believe they have compensated almost all of those affected by the oil spill in the fisheries sector.

“We think that only few (remain to be paid)… maybe tens rather than hundreds and certainly not thousands,” he said.

Nichols said they do not want to be involved in the political squabble in Guimaras.

“We will not be drawn into it. The Fund is not a political organization. We are not interested in politics,” said Nichols.

Guimaras Gov. JC Rahman Nava (Kampi) who is in third and last term is running against re-electionist Rep. Edgar Espinosa (Lakas CMD).

Both officials have blamed each other for the deluge of claimants.

Nava claimed it was Espinosa’s camp that spread the “misinformation” that anyone could file a claim resulting to the deluge of claimants.

“They have not gone through the established process that’s why there’s chaos,” said Nava.

He said the claims that were processed by Espinosa’s camp included the congressman’s driver, secretary and relatives.

When reached for comment, Espinosa did not deny that his relatives and employees were among the claimants.

“I did not know that they filed the claims. I have instructed them to withdraw it,” Espinosa said in a telephone interview.

Espinosa in turn accused Nava of including employees at the provincial capitol and those belonging to the governor’s political camp among the claimants.

Espinosa’s consultant Gerry Yucon cited the case of Vice Mayor Johhny Gajo of San Lorenzo town who was among the claimants.

But Nava said Gajo is a legitimate claimant because the vice mayor is a fishing boat owner.

Nava said they could not do anything with the number of claimants because it has already been submitted to the IOPC. “It’s up to them to verify it.”

Nichols said that before the payments were made, they had agreed that the claim forms will be processed and verified in four stages and will be signed by the barangay captain, local fisheries and agriculture officer, municipal mayor and the governor.

But he said they subsequently discovered that Espinosa was also adding his signature to the claim forms.

“The Fund is not in a position to turn away anybody’s claim. We had an original agreement that most of the claims will be verified by Governor Nava but we couldn’t stop anybody else from joining in the verification process,” said Nichols.

He said that while the IOPC normally would assess and verify the claims individually, they agreed to adopt the set-up with the help of the local government units because of the need to compensate the victims quickly.

“We knew that there were some risks that some people would be compensated (even if) they shouldn’t be compensated. We considered it an acceptable risk in the interest that people would get paid quickly,” said Nichols.

He said it would take years to verify the 102,600 claims. “But I believe most of them will be rejected because they are not admissible.”

He said the second batch of claim forms were incomplete, lacking information or were submitted by minors. The IOPC has a policy of not compensating minors because they were advised that it is illegal for minors to be involved in fishing.

“It is very, very sad that to some extent it is being abused in this way. I do not know who’s responsible for encouraging people this way to (file) claims,” said Nichols.

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