The Mindoro oil spill

The broader view - Harry Roque - The Philippine Star

Being a scuba diver, I find absolute serenity under our archipelagic waters. Having logged more than 1,000 dives in top sites like Mindoro Island’s Puerto Galera and Apo Reef and Negros Oriental’s Apo Island, the recent oil spill in Oriental Mindoro has hit close to home. It also reminds me of the horrors of the infamous 2006 disaster in Guimaras Strait.

When I served as a party-list representative in the 17th Congress, I filed House Resolution 523, which called for the approval of the compromise agreement between the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and the International Oil Pollution Compensation (IOPC) Funds related to Guimaras oil spill clean-up. The agreed compensation of P104.7 million would also fund a National Oil Spill Contingency Plan to address similar cases.

My resolution came out in 2016. In 2021, the IOPC said the civil proceeding against the 1992 Fund remains unsettled.

The Mindoro incident, caused by the sinking of MT Princess Empress that carried 800,000 liters of fuel oil, has started to wreak environmental havoc on the island’s marine ecosystem and economic repercussions to its coastal populace. The spillage could potentially destroy the Verde Island Passage which, according to the Asian Development Bank, sits at the center of the Coral Triangle, one of the world’s richest areas of marine life. It has reportedly reached the shores of Palawan and may even impact the beaches of Boracay.

At a recent Senate hearing chaired by Senator Cynthia Villar, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council said the spill has extended to 70 areas in the Mimaropa region and affected 22,000 families in Oriental Mindoro and Palawan. It also caused livelihood disruption to 13,588 fishers and caused illness to 122 persons in Oriental Mindoro. To date, the Marcos government and non-government organizations have provided some P43 million in aid to affected residents, according to a STAR news story.

Obviously, the longer the spill is uncontained, the greater the damage is to the country’s marine biodiversity and the lives and livelihoods of coastal communities. In a press statement, the IOPC is closely monitoring the incident and will make a report to the 1992 Fund Convention executive committee in May.

Our country acceded to the IOPC Funds in 1997, which the Senate ratified two years later. The Funds are made up of two intergovernmental organizations, the 1992 Fund and the 2003 Supplementary Fund Protocol, which provide compensation for oil pollution damage resulting from spills of persistent oil from tankers.

The Funds form an international compensation regime for oil pollution victims pursuant to the Civil Liability Convention (CLC) of 1992. Under Section 1 Article 4 of the Convention, the IOPC shall compensate any qualified person if the shipowner is: (1) found not to be liable under CLC of 1992, (2) financially incapable to meet its obligations in full and the insurance does not cover or is insufficient to cover the claim, or (3) the damage exceeds the liability of the shipowner under the CLC of 1992.

In 2006, a sunken motor tanker owned by Sunshine Maritime Development Corporation spilled an estimated 2,000 tons of bunker oil off Guimaras Island. For nearly five months, the Coast Guard deployed its assets for the clean-up and pumping operations that incurred P279.3 million in public funds.

In 2007, the PCG filed a civil case against the shipowners and the 1992 Fund for damages. It cited the Convention’s Article 4 as a legal basis. When the Manila Regional Trial Court dismissed the case for PCG’s lack of interest, the IOPC offered to pay a compromise amount of P14 million. In 2011, the Coast Guard accepted the IOPC’s second settlement offer of P104.7 million. From 2018 to 2021, the failure of PCG to obtain congressional approval, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, further delayed the final settlement of the case.

Of course, we do not want a repeat of the Guimaras case. Unfortunately, the PCG seems reluctant to tap an immediate remedy provided by the IOPC. In case of an oil spill, a State Party like the Philippines can utilize the 1992 Fund to get the services of international experts to clean up the affected areas. The emergency access to the Fund, however, should be without prejudice to the pursuit by PCG of further claims. In my view, it is gross negligence on PCG’s part if it fails to access the Funds that can immediately contain the Mindoro oil spill.

Paying last respects to Governor Degamo

A few days ago, I attended the funeral of my friend, Governor Roel Degamo, in Siaton, Negros Oriental. I condoled and prayed with his wife and only son. Pamplona Mayor Janice is a churchmate in the United Church of Christ in the Philippines. At the height of the pandemic, Governor Degamo fully supported the Duterte administration’s efforts to mitigate the spread of the Covid virus. He was also a pillar of the UniTeam alliance that catapulted President Marcos Jr. and Vice President Duterte into power. Further, he endorsed my congressional run in 2016 and my senatorial candidacy last year.

His assassination is a barbarous act of political violence that has no place in our democracy.

The police have apprehended several suspects linked to the governor’s murder. Allegedly, two suspects have pointed to Representative Arnolfo Teves Jr. as the mastermind. On a medical trip to the United States, Teves has relayed his safety concerns to House Speaker Martin Romualdez upon his return to the country.

I urge the congressman to come home and clear his name. The government has assured him of safe passage and protection. As a legislator, he should have faith in the fairness of our criminal justice system. After all, he is presumed innocent of any crime until proven otherwise. Flight, on the other hand, would be an indication of guilt.


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