Underwatertimes.com News Service - August 18, 2006 18:00 EST

British experts have arrived here to help assess the damage from the country's worst oil spill, as officials said aid was slow in arriving at the scene.

A spokeswoman for Petron Corp., the company that chartered the tanker Solar I, which sank eight days ago in rough seas off Guimaras with 500,000 gallons of oil onboard, said two pollution experts had arrived in the zone on Thursday.

"As of now there are two representatives of the International Tanker Oil Pollution Federation there," Petron Corp. spokeswoman Virginia Ruivivar said in Manila.

"They are assessing what needs to be done. After that we would know what kind of assistance we would ask from the other countries," she added.

The spill has affected more than 200 kilometers of coastline, covering beaches and mangroves in black sludge and threatening the livelihoods of hundreds of poor fishermen living in villages along the shore.

The tanker is lying in 900 meters (3,000 feet) of water off Guimaras.

The Coast Guard, which is coordinating the cleanup, said only one of the ship's 10 tanks has ruptured, spewing some 50,000 gallons of oil into the sea.

The government has requested help from the Indonesian, Japanese and US governments for help to refloat the tanker, but since early Friday, nothing has been forthcoming.

The Coast Guard has said the main priority now is to try and refloat the tanker before more tanks rupture from the water pressure.

"As long as that ship remains on the ocean floor, we have a problem," said regional Coast Guard commander Harold Harder.

On Guimaras small groups of residents were busy shoveling the sludge off the blackened beaches in and around Nueva Valencia.

"No one wants to buy our fish anymore. They tell us it's full of poison," said Hanito Gonzales, 45, as he shoveled oil-coated sand into sacks along with about 20 neighbors in the coastal village of Sumirib.

Shrinking catch

"Fish have also become scarce at sea," he said, adding that as a result, 96 households in Sumirib face the very real possibility of going hungry.

At sea three Coast Guard boats and eight Petron tugboats used chemical dispersants, jet sprayers and other methods to prevent the rest of the oil slick from floating ashore.

Regional environment official Bienvenido Lepayon said teams were fanning out to estimate the damage on coastal resources, as dead fish and other species washed up on the shore.

Huge and expensive

Harder said a "huge and expensive operation" would be needed to clean up the mess, estimating that it could take seven months.

Petron officials said its vessels and equipment have been helping the Coast Guard since Monday.

The provincial government has said at least 10,000 people in Guimaras have been affected.

The environmental watchdog Greenpeace warned Friday that the sunken tanker could cause an environmental catastrophe unless urgent action was taken.

Von Hernandez, Greenpeace's Southeast Asian campaign director, said oil trapped in Solar I's tanks could pour out any time.

Only around 50,000 gallons have leaked into the sea so far, but it has already caused the worst environmental disaster in Philippine history.

Polluted mangroves

According to Hernandez, some 1,000 hectares (2,470 acres) of mangroves and 26 hectares of marine reserve around the southwestern corner of Guimaras have been affected by the oil spill.

"The area we are looking at is pristine. It is very delicate and much of it has been lost. Some of it will never be replaced," he said.

The Greenpeace vessel Esperanza has been enlisted by the Coast Guard to coordinate an environmental impact study of the spill.

"Guimaras is a beautiful but very poor corner of the Philippines," Hernandez said. "Its pristine waters are home to coral reefs, a vast variety of fish and marine life, seaweed farms, seagrass beds and beaches."

Chester Casil, an ecosystem management specialist working for the Taclong Marine Reserve, echoed Greenpeace's concerns.

He said the reserve, covering some 1,143 hectares off Guimaras's south coast, has a "fragile ecosystem."

Although not affected yet by the spill, the reserve contains some 144 species of fish and other maritime animals.

Threatened marine ecosystems

The Philippines has one of the richest and most diverse marine ecosystems in the world.

Most of them, however, are disappearing with only between 4 percent and 5 percent of the country's coral reefs still regarded as being in excellent condition.

More than 70 percent of its mangrove forests, essential nursery grounds for reef fish as well as other commercial species of economic and ecological value, have been converted for aquaculture, logging, or other uses, while half the seagrass beds have been lost or severely degraded.

Teresita Samson-Castillo, environment undersecretary for field operations, said the department will release its own report on the oil spill next week.

Castillo said the DENR is regularly meeting with local government officials and the Regional Disaster Coordinating Council to systematize their action on the field.

"We are regularly briefed on the situation and how the cleanup is going on in the ground," she said.

Castillo said the government is also helping out in providing aid to some 300,000 families affected by the oil spill.

"The government's concern is also how to provide them with food to eat every day," she said.