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GUIMARAS, The Philippines -- The sunken tanker responsible for the worst oil spill in the nation’s history began leaking more oil on Tuesday, the coast guard said.
With clean-up crews already losing the race to contain the massive slick that has washed sludge and dead fish up onto hundreds of kilometers of coastline, reports of a new leak raised fears the disaster could get worse.
But the company that chartered the doomed Solar I, sitting on the ocean floor with 450,000 gallons of oil still on board, denied the claims of the coast guard, which said a new leak had sprung overnight.
“It’s definite that there is a leak,” coast guard chief Vice Admiral Arturo Gosingan told Philippines television. He said the oil was “probably” coming out at 200 liters an hour.
The civil defense office said the spill had now spread over some 300 kilometers of coastline on Guimaras island and was now threatening Negros, the southeast Asian archi-pelago’s fourth-largest island.
The ship went down in bad weather off the small island of Guimaras on August 11, spewing oil that has devastated beaches, reefs and marine reserves. Two of the ship’s crew are still missing.
Only one of the ship’s 10 containers is known to have burst so far, emptying its 50,000 gallons of industrial fuel oil into the sea in what has become one of the worst environmental catastrophes ever to hit the Philippines.
The slick — now a semi-solid black gel — has killed marine life and strangled mangrove forest. Rotting fish litter the beaches, where villagers are needing shovels to scoop up the chunks of oily muck.
It now threatens the islands of Negros and Panay, where villagers were erecting crude booms off beaches to hold back the sludge.
Apart from the environmental impact the disaster has also been felt economically with thousands of poor fishermen losing their livelihoods, and a further leak could make an already bad situation much worse.
Petron Corp. spokeswoman Virginia Ruivivar denied there had been any more oil seeping out of the stricken vessel, which is around 3,000 feet underwater.
“Our own aerial surveys confirm that there’s no new leak,” she said.
With authorities unsure whether to try to refloat the vessel or suck out the remaining fuel, there is a race against the clock because of fears that the water pressure at that depth could burst the remaining containers at any time.
Petron said it was consulting expert marine contractors on which option would be best, but the company gave no timetable for a decision.
Greenpeace, which last week called the situation a “ticking time bomb,” warned the government Tuesday to prepare for long-term damage over a wide area.
“The impact of this oil spill on the environment will linger for years, even decades. The government must learn from this disaster,” it said.
A Manila newspaper on Sunday said the captain of the tanker was not properly trained to handle the ship.
The findings of a preliminary investigation into the August 11 disaster by the Maritime Industry Authority showed he did not have “advance training on oil tanker operations,” according to the Philippine Daily Inquirer.