Underwatertimes.com News Service - August 15, 2006 10:07 EST

The island province of Guimaras has declared a "state of calamity" following what authorities have called the country's worst oil spill, as international lobby group Greenpeace urged the government to hold petroleum firm Petron and its partners "accountable" for the disaster.

"This is a very serious concern and we need all the help we can get because we have had no oil spill of this magnitude," Environment Secretary Angelo Reyes told reporters in central Bacolod City close to Guimaras Island.

The coast guard said in a statement it has sought the help of international oil spill response companies in dealing with two million liters (528,360 gallons) of industrial fuel leaking out of the tanker Solar I, which sank in rough seas Friday off the southern coast of Guimaras, about 500 kilometers (312 miles) southeast of Manila. Two of the 20 crew members were still missing.

It said the oil spill was a potential "environmental catastrophe" and considered it as "the biggest major oil spill that has hit our country."

The Guimaras provincial board held a meeting Monday in Nueva Valencia town and declared the entire province under a "state of calamity," which allows the speedy release of relief funds during a disaster, said town Mayor Diosdado Gonzaga.

Regional environment chief Julian Amador said 1,128 hectares (2,787 acres) of mangrove in Nueva Valencia and another 26 hectares (64.25 acres) on an island marine reserve have been damaged. The oil was about 10 centimeters (four inches) thick at the Taklong Island marine sanctuary.

Gonzaga said nearby Sibunag town also has been affected.

Officials in Valladolid on the southern tip of nearby Negros Occidental province also declared a "state of calamity" as the oil slick approached its shores late Tuesday.

The waters around the island resort of Inampulugan, part of Negros Occidental's Pulupandan municipality, was contaminated Tuesday.

Gonzaga said about 6,000 of his constituents, mostly dependent on fishing, have been affected but the number could increase after local officials complete a survey.

Emergency food supplies -- rice and canned goods -- have been distributed to residents of 11 coastal villages along 132 kilometers (82.5 miles) of the municipal shoreline, Gonzaga said.

"Our shorelines hit by the oil look like they were painted black. Anything it touches turns black," he told The Associated Press by cellular telephone.

He said the bunker oil was "very sticky, like molasses."

He said the oil spill has also spread to 24 hectares (59 acres) of seaweed farms, putting their harvests at risk.

Cmdr. Harold Jarder, the coast guard officer supervising the containment of the oil spill, said the tanker is more than 900 meters (3,000 feet) under water about 27 kilometers (16.5 miles) south of Guimaras.

"We have no capability in the Philippines to reach the bottom," he told the Associated Press.

He refused to speculate on how much fuel has already leaked out of the tanker since it sank, but said the oil slick Tuesday already was 27 kilometers (17 miles) long and about 50 meters (165 feet) wide and being swept by the currents southeastward toward Negros Island.

He said coast guard crews could not contain the spill over the site of the sinking with floating booms because of the big waves. He said they have resorted to spraying chemicals to disperse the fuel.

Meanwhile, the international environmental group Greenpeace, reacting to the spill, urged the government to hold petroleum firm Petron "and its partners accountable for damages to marine and coastal ecosystems and for their rehabilitation."

"The scale of this oil spill may turn to be even larger than the Semirara oil spill last year and threatens at least three marine reserves in Visayas," the group said in a statement, warning that the leaking fuel could cause "long-term and possibly permanent damage to the environment and livelihoods of people."

Greenpeace suggested that regulations be crafted to enforce the "highest standards" on the shipping industry and those chartering vessels to prevent new spills.

"Oil causes climate change which in turn triggers extreme weather events. What is clear is that from oil spills to global warming, the price of oil is a lot higher than what we pay at the pump," Greenpeace said.

But it added that the "only way to avert either of these environmental catastrophes is to reduce our dependence on oil."