The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill was the largest oil spill in United States by the time it happened. While it was a disastrous incident, killing thousands of birds, fish and intertidal invertebrates, along with many dolphins, elephant seals and sea lions, the legacy of the Santa Barbara oil spill is lasting and impressive and includes the creation of the National Environmental Policy Act, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and National Marine Sanctuaries system, which until today is seriously protecting important marine ecosystems around the United States.
The 2006 oil spill in Panay Gulf was considered to be the worst oil spill in the Philippines. The oil leak adversely affected marine sanctuaries and mangrove reserves in four municipalities in Guimaras, and threatened 27 communities in Iloilo province and 17 others in Negros Occidental. Because the oil spill nightmare in 2006 seriously threatened the country’s marine ecosystems, the government was so inspired to prepare and respond to future oil spills by doing…nothing of significance.
Now we are paying a high price for this inaction. The massive oil spill caused by the sinking of oil tanker MT Princess Empress off the coast of Naujan, Oriental Mindoro on February 28 is threatening to affect the Verde Island Passage (VIP), a region described by scientists as the center of marine biodiversity in the world. According to Conservation International, the VIP is “one of the most productive ecosystems in the world.” (Read, “VIP Under Siege, BusinessMirror,” March 18, 2023)
From fishing to shipping, the VIP provides food, livelihoods and other benefits to over two million people. It is also home to “charismatic species such as whale sharks, sea turtles, nudibranchs, and an impressive array of corals.” More importantly, Conservation International declared that the strait is “the backbone of the local economy, thriving upon coastal tourism, fisheries, and as a shipping route to the international ports of Batangas, Manila and Subic Bay.”
In a recent Senate inquiry on the disastrous Mindoro oil spill, Dr. Cesar L. Villanoy of the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute said it is imperative to stop the seepage from the sunken vessel to prevent further damage to marine and coastal environments. He said this should be done before the amihan season ends, which also signifies the onset of the summer season, which, he estimated, will start to happen before the Holy Week.
Citing trajectory models used by the United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the ocean’s current and strong wind brought about by amihan are pushing the oil seeping from the sunken vessel to the shores of Naujan and Pola, Oriental Mindoro. However, he warned that without the wind, the trajectory model indicates it will move to the direction of the VIP in the next few weeks.
So far, he said, the oil spill is going south, mostly to Semirara and Caluya Island and eventually to Cuyo. However, in the next few days, it will reach the Taytay area in Palawan. “The currents are starting to move to the west—towards the Verde Passage. Sometime next week, it will start to affect the Verde Island Passage,” said Villanoy.
International ocean conservation advocacy group Oceana said it is clear from the testimonies made by national government agencies during the Senate hearing that government agencies still have to learn to closely coordinate with one another, including with local authorities and stakeholders for disaster prevention, effective disaster risk communication, and disaster response.
Sen. Loren Legarda stressed the need for concerted action to mitigate the damage caused by the oil leakage. “Who among the government agencies present here is in charge? There should be one commander. There should be one head. We cannot have different agencies without a head. I call on the President to designate an overall in charge among the agencies,” she said.
We hope the massive oil spill in Oriental Mindoro would prompt authorities to do something significant this time to contain and control oil spills in the future. Oil companies must be held responsible for cleanup costs and economic and environmental damages. Imposing fines equal to the harm caused by the spill is a good start, but tougher penalties are needed for negligent oil companies and their officers to teach them a lesson. How about jailing their CEOs?