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Philippines Oil Spill Claims First Life as Fisherman Inhales Fumes; 'Disaster in Progress'

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MANILA, The Philippines -- A fisherman died of cardio-respiratory arrest from inhaling the fumes from the oil sludge outside his home in Nueva Valencia, the town worst hit by the oil spill off Guimaras island, ABS-CBN reported on its website yesterday.

According to www.abs-cbn.com, Remelio Dalida is the first human fatality claimed by the oil spill. Dead fish and other sea creatures have washed up on the shoreline of Guimaras, coated in bunker fuel, since M/T Solar I sank off Guimaras on Aug. 11.

Provincial health officer Dr. Felecito Lozarita said the fumes may have clogged Dalida’s lungs and airways.

Lozarita said bunker fuel that leaked from the tanker has toxic substances that may cause skin disease upon contact.

Government health personnel also reported an increasing number of residents who fell ill following the oil spill.

As this developed, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) handed oil refiner Petron Corp. a P100-million bill to cover the initial cost of cleaning up the massive oil spill.

"We demanded a bond of P100 million from Petron," said PCG chief Vice Admiral Arturo Gosingan, adding that the slick from M/T Solar I was getting bigger.

To respond to this "disaster in progress," President Arroyo formed yesterday Task Force Guimaras to address the worst oil spill in the country’s history.

Defense Secretary Avelino Cruz said the task force will be led by the National Disaster Coordinating Council, which he chairs, with Transportation Secretary Leandro Mendoza, Environment Secretary Angelo Reyes, Health Secretary Francisco Duque, Social Welfare Secretary Esperanza Cabral, Energy Secretary Raphael Lotilla and Gosingan as members.

"The task force will oversee and monitor the overall plan of the government to address the oil spill," Cruz announced in a press conference at MalacaƱang shortly after Mrs. Arroyo ordered the formation of the task force during a Cabinet meeting.

He said Petron and the owner of the sunken tanker will assist the task force and have pledged to shoulder the cost of the containment of the oil spill and retrieval of the ship.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said Mrs. Arroyo has directed the Cabinet to work on "basic and clear-cut guidelines on quick response, containment and cleanup in the event of such deadly environmental disasters."

The Department of Transportation and Communications, Maritime Industry Authority and the PCG will investigate the root causes of the accident and the DOTC and Marina will draft policy recommendations to prevent similar accidents in the future.

Mendoza said the PCG will have its first hearing today on the oil spill through its Special Board of Marine Inquiry to find out who should be held liable for the disaster.

The Department of Health will issue health advisories and send medical teams to prevent illnesses that may arise due to the oil spill.

The Department of Social Welfare and Development will take charge of the P200 per day "cash for work" program for displaced fisherfolk. Cruz said the local governments would have to shoulder the payments first, but the DSWD will reimburse them.

He also said the NDCC will also advance funds to its local offices to help pay the workers.

Reyes called on the public to contribute natural materials to help soak up the sludge, including feathers and coconut husks, even as he disclosed that the government is seriously considering using special oil-consuming bacteria.

He said coconut coir can soak up oil three times its volume while a kilo of these bacteria can consume a ton of sludge.

Reyes said local governments are making booms out of natural materials to contain the spill and are preparing temporary oil depots.

The 998-ton tanker, contracted by Petron, was transporting about two million liters of bunker fuel from an oil refinery in Bataan to Zamboanga when it sank in bad weather on Aug. 11 off Guimaras.

Gosingan said between 200 and 300 liters of oil per hour continued to leak out of the sunken tanker.

Petron spokeswoman Virginia Ruivivar denied reports of a continuing leak from the ship, one of whose 10 oil compartments was initially ruptured.

"The evidence points that the vessel has ceased to leak and what we are seeing is the initial 200,000 liters that came from the damaged portion of the vessel," she said.

Ruivivar said the company had contracted an expert to conduct an underwater assessment this week of the Solar I.

Petron said in a statement that it will "extend all the assistance needed to... Guimaras. We are committed to stay and help in the province as long as necessary."

However, the oil firm declined to give an official statement on the P100-million bond being demanded by the PCG for the cleanup operation.

Petron said it has organized 700 people in Nueva Valencia under a "cash for work" scheme to help in the cleanup. Each worker receives P200 per day.

Petron said it was able to clean up 17 kilometers of shoreline and collected 100 metric tons of debris to date. At this rate, the oil firm said it expects the cleanup to be completed in 30 to 45 days.

Ruivivar said "we are willing to spend to correct the situation," but challenged the claim that Petron could be held responsible for the worst oil spill in the country’s history.

"I’m not sure about being partially liable," she said.

Ruivivar said that under international conventions, "the spiller pays" while noting that the tanker’s owner, Sunshine Maritime Development Corp. (SMDC), is a small company and does not have the resources to pay upfront.

She also denied allegations the vessel was unsuited for carrying such a cargo, saying "we have full confidence that the vessel was seaworthy when it left our refinery. It was bad weather, rough waves."

The PCG’s on-scene commander for containment operations also refuted Petron’s claim that oil has stopped leaking from the sunken tanker.

"Our statement is consistent: the leaking is still continuous," PCG-Iloilo station commander Harold Jarder told The STAR.

He said they were at the oil spill site Monday afternoon together with a representative from the Japanese Coast Guard (JCG).

"We can confirm that the leak is continuous. They (Petron) just made an aerial survey, and they would say the leak has stopped? There’s evidence that the leaking has not stopped," Jarder said, adding that PCG boats spraying oil dispersants in the area can back their statement.

He stressed that Petron’s statement is "totally inaccurate," noting that "they just flew over the area, and lo and behold, they came to the conclusion that it has stopped leaking."

Based on the latest reports, the oil spill has spread. The presence of oil spots the size of a human palm were confirmed in waters off the northern Iloilo towns of Ajuy and Concepcion. Mayor Raul Banias said in a radio interview yesterday morning that the shoreline of isles in his town were blanketed with a sheen of oil.

Jarder said that from the air, what can be seen is the "expanse of the oil spill," not whether the leak continues.

The Office of Civil Defense said the spill had now spread over some 300 kilometers of coastline on Guimaras and was now threatening Negros, the country’s fourth-largest island, as well as Panay island.

With authorities unsure whether to try and refloat the vessel or suck out the remaining fuel, there is a race against time amid fears the water pressure could burst the remaining compartments at any time.

Petron said it was consulting marine contractors on which option would be best but gave no timetable for a decision.

Japanese and American experts are coming to help clean up the oil spill off Guimaras in response to an urgent request from the government last Aug. 16.

The Japan Disaster Relief Team — three experts from the Japan Coast Guard (JCG) and an official from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) — were set to arrive yesterday to assess the cleanup operation, a Japanese embassy statement said.

The Japanese embassy said the team will leave for Guimaras this morning.

Capt. Luis Tuason, a regional PCG commander, said two to three US Coast Guard experts were expected to arrive yesterday or today.

Jarder said that on Monday afternoon, a JCG representative was taken to the oil spill site and personally observed containment operations, particularly the spraying of oil dispersants.

The representative, whom Jarder identified only as Commander Okubo, advised the PCG to continue spraying oil dispersants in the meantime, although supplies are running low because of the immensity of the oil spill.

Jarder said Japan is very knowledgeable in dealing with oil spills because the country is situated in what is called the highway for oil supertankers.

"A lot of oil supertankers pass by Japan bay," Jarder said. "So when it comes to equipment for oil spills, we’re still in the stone age, while that of Japan is already in the modern age."

Some of the equipment in the PCG’s inventory — recovery boats, skimmers and oil spill booms — were donated by the JCG, he added.

The PCG expects the Japanese experts to provide techniques and recommendations on dealing with the disaster, including shoreline cleanup.

As for the provincial government of Guimaras, it has set up a website, www.projectsunrise.org, to call for organizations that have the capacity to recover sunken vessels 600 to 700 meters underwater, relief assistance for at least 4,000 families displaced by the oil spill, and the introduction of initiatives to restore their livelihood. Most of the families depended on tourism and fishing prior to the disaster.

Guimaras Gov. JC Rahman Nava created Task Force Sunrise to coordinate relief efforts as more and more families are affected by the oil spill. It is from the task force that the idea for a website evolved and was developed in partnership with the Canadian Urban Institute, with fund assistance from the Canadian International Development Agency.

Nava also called on international funding agencies to consider the island province for their development initiatives since Guimaras needs projects to help its people restore their livelihood and rehabilitate the environment.

The provincial government of Guimaras will open a bank account to receive cash donations, and details will soon be posted on the website.

Officials and environmentalists warned that Solar I may slide deeper into the mud and urged SMDC to act faster, either to salvage the ship or siphon off the oil remaining in the tanker.

Reyes said that based on a map from the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority (NAMRIA), the sunken vessel is in danger of possibly sliding southwards.

Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan, president of Word Wide Fund-Philippines (WWF-Philippines), said since the slope of the suspected location of the tanker is believed to be steep and muddy, the possibility of the vessel falling deeper is likely.

Tan said the seabed southwest of the vessel is at 12,000 feet and also mud-covered. The sunken tanker is suspected to be at 2,000 feet below sea level at present.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources is currently conducting its environmental damage assessment and plans to release its initial evaluation this week.

The agency has yet to determine the liability of Petron and SMDC in connection with the oil spill that has already contaminated at least 1,100 hectares of mangrove and hectares more of beaches.

The oil spill is also threatening at least three marine sanctuaries, including the "high marine biodiversity area" that is considered important for shellfish, sea cow and whale sharks.

At least 10,000 small fishermen have been adversely affected by the incident, losing an estimated P3 million to P5 million daily.

Some 40, 000 individuals, six wharfs, 13 resorts, nine fishing grounds, four biodiversity spots, seven scenic views, a cave, and 23 barangays in San Lorenzo, Nueva Valencia, and Sibunag towns in Guimaras have been affected by the oil spill.

Views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of UnderwaterTimes.com, its staff or its advertisers.


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