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‘A bad dream that won’t go away’

August 10, 2007

By Nestor P. Burgos Jr.
The News Today, Aug. 10, 2007

GUIMARAS ISLAND — Joel Villagracias still clearly remembers that night.

He and his family were asleep in their nipa hut when they were first roused by the cries of their youngest child who had difficulty breathing.

And then the pungent odor struck them, so strong that they felt dizzy.

Only later they did realize that the shoreline, 60 meters from their doorstep, was already covered with thick black liquid which villagers later called “bangker (bunker).”

“The sea was black and so were the sand and rocks. Our boats were also covered with oil,” Villagracias, 42, said recalling the scene hours after the M/T Solar I sank 13 nautical miles off Guimaras on August 11, 2006, spilling almost 2 million liters of bunker fuel and triggering the country’s worst environmental disaster.

His family along with 200 other residents of Barangay Tando in Nueva Valencia town were forced to leave their homes in September last year after health officials raised fears of serious health risks. Villagracias along with his wife Margie and their six children aged 3 to 18 stayed for nearly two months in tents at an evacuation center at the village proper.

They have long gone back to their house in Sitio Iraya but life has not gone back to normal for them.

“It’s like a bad dream that still doesn’t want to go away,” said Villagracias.

He said he has gone back fishing since December last year, but like thousands of other residents affected by the oil spill he is still reeling from the loss of livelihood and damage to the island’s rich natural resources.

The International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund (IOPCF), a London-based intergovernmental agency that indemnifies oil spill victims, gave Villagracias P12,000 as compensation for pollution damages. But he said this was hardly enough to pay debts incurred during the months that he was unable to go fishing.

Villagracias said fish catch has not returned to pre-oil spill levels. “I used to get three kilos of shrimp before. Now I get five pieces.”

His wife Margie has started working as a laundrywoman to help him feed their family.

The disaster is also still taking its toll on the island’s once pristine beaches and natural resources with scientists still expecting continued impact on the environment.

Dr. Rex Sadaba, a mangrove expert and head of the University of the Philippines in the Visayas (UPV) Oil Spill Response Program, said at least 442 mature mangrove trees have died at the 1,143-hectare Taklong Island National Marine Reserve (TINMAR) in Barangay Lapaz in Nueva Valencia.

Another 200 mangrove trees covering 400 square meters in Sitio Lusaran in the same village have also died. Other contaminated trees that have survived are experiencing defoliation (falling off of leaves).

“This is indicative that mangroves are still undergoing stress from the bunker fuel that have coated the trees and blocked their breathing pores,” said Sadaba.

UPV is spearheading the long-term monitoring and research program to determine the impact of the oil contamination on environment, aquaculture, fisheries and social health.

Scientists who attended a conference on the oil spill last year have called for continued monitoring and more extensive research because the effects could take years to manifest and last.

But Sadaba said the bulk of the researches and monitoring has not started because of the delay of the P50-million fund intended for the program.

The delay in the funds has also put on hold rehabilitation projects and alternative livelihood programs.

The Department of Budget and Management has released only around P200 million of the total P863 million fund intended to for the rehabilitation of the affected areas and communities.

Congress last year alloted the fund in the supplemental budget after the President declared a state of national calamity two weeks after the oil spill.

The fund is allocated to the Department of Agriculture (P100 million), DENR (P130 million), Department of Health (P22 million), Department of Social Welfare and Development (P247 million), local government units (P250 million), UPV (P50 million) and other agencies (P64 million).

Presidential Assistant for Western Visayas Rafael Coscolluela, head of the regional Task Force Solar I Oil Spill, has asked President Macapagal-Arroyo to issue an administrative order to streamline the procedures and requirements for the release of the remaining funds.

With no funds for the government’s rehabilitation projects, the affected residents have to make do with programs initiated by non-government organizations and private groups.

Barangay Tando is a recipient of a livelihood and rehabilitation project of the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives which aims to help residents cope with the long term effects of the oil spill. The project involves the donation of four motorized boats, fishnets and other gear for deep-sea fishing to fishermen and the raising of goats.

Petron Corp. had also donated a four-room elementary school building in the village.

Petron Foundation executive director Malou Erlie said they have provided around P20 million worth of livelihood projects and grants to Guimaras. They also plan to put up an Internet system for the province’s 17 public high schools worth P3.6 million.

But while they welcome any assistance for affected residents and communities, environmental and non-government organizations say that Petron and the owners of the sunken tanker should be held accountable for the destroying the livelihood of thousands of residents and damaging the island’s rich marine resources including around 220 km of coastline, 454 hectares of mangroves and 58 ha of seaweed plantations.

Justice also remains elusive for Victor Morados and Art Ian Nabua, crew members of the Solar I who remain missing and are presumed dead.

“Despite the government’s pronouncements of sparing no one in making those responsible for the oil spill accountable, we have not heard anyone being charged, tried and jailed for this man-made disaster,” said Ma. Geobelyn Lopez, coordinator of the Save Our Lives, SOS! Panay and Guimaras, a group composed of non-government organizations, scientists and environmentalists.

“Moving on, recovery and rehabilitation can never be complete without justice,” said Lopez.

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