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Philippines Struggles to Deal with Massive Oil Spill; 19.5 Mile Slick Hitting Coastline, Corals, Mangroves

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NILA, Philippines -- The Philippines Wednesday appealed for urgent help to combat the country's worst-ever oil spill, which has polluted a major marine reserve and threatened the livelihoods of thousands of fishermen.

Coastguard officials said that they were struggling to cope with the scale of the environmental disaster caused by the sinking of the tanker Solar I last week with over 520,000 gallons of industrial fuel on board.

The ship went down Friday in rough seas in the Panay Gulf between the central islands of Panay and Guimaras. Eighteen of the crew were rescued but two remain missing, the coastguard said.

"We don't have the capability right now to salvage sunken vessels this deep. That's why we're seeking international support," said coastguard spokesman Lieutenant Commander Joseph Coyme.

Officials said that the government had asked for equipment and specialist teams from Japan as well as a team from Indonesia to help manage the slick, which is around 460 kilometers (280 miles) south of Manila.

Coyme said that the challenge was to contain the 19.5 nautical-mile-long slick off the southern coast of Guimaras and to plug the leaking tanker, which is resting on the seabed in around 3,000 feet (900 meters) of water.

Local crews have attempted to put booms around the spill to keep it from spreading but their work has been severely hampered by rough seas. The coastguard also appealed for help in trying to salvage or refloat the ship.

The slick has hit more than 200 kilometers of coastline, damaging mangrove swamps, seaweed plantations, and coral reefs containing popular dive sites, said Joaquin Carlos Nava, governor of Guimaras province.

Local television showed oil-blackened stretches of coastline and fishermen trying to steer their small wooden outriggers through the shiny muck floating above the waves.

Coyme estimated that the spill, described by the coastguard as the worst in the history of the Southeast Asian country, would take more than a year to clean up.

The slick could eventually threaten the west coast of the island of Negros as well as the eastern flank of Panay island.

"If we can't apply physical barriers it will pass through the Visayan Sea," he said.

Of particular concern for conservationists is damage to the Taclong island national marine reserve off the south of Guimaras.

The network of three species of mangroves, reefs of nine types of hard coral, and beds of seven types of sea grass serves as a "feeding, breeding, and nursery ground" for 144 fish species, the coastguard said. It said that the spill was "wreaking havoc" on fishing grounds and other coastal areas.

However, Coyme said that the slick was unlikely to reach the resort island of Boracay off Panay's northern coast. The island is the Philippines' top tourist attraction and is famed for its white sand beaches.

Governor Nava said that in his province alone up to 10,000 fishermen and their families were being affected by the disaster.

"It is not only the coastline and fishing industries that are affected but also the tourism industry," he said. "We are looking at the possible evacuation and support for our displaced fisherfolk. We don't know how long this [cleanup] will take," he told ABS-CBN television.

"I don't think we can do this alone. All we can do is try to mitigate the impact of the spill on our shoreline."

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